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Want Power? Stop Saying ‘Sorry’ So Much

Apologies have become more of a reflex than a real expression of contrition and overusing them might be holding you back

Tue, Oct 25, 2022 8:32amGrey Clock 4 min

Sorry, I’m just now seeing your email! (You sent it 15 minutes ago.)

Sorry that you completely misinterpreted that thing I said.

Sorry you just rammed into me with your grocery-store cart.

The apology is running amok in conversations and communications. We drop it indiscriminately, crying mea culpa for all manner of things we really shouldn’t be sorry for—and diluting the apologies that truly matter. Is it time to stop? Could we even cut back if we wanted to?

“I wasn’t really that sorry,” admits Louise Julig, a freelance writer in Encinitas, Calif., who found she was constantly apologising for the “delay” when replying to notes, even when there wasn’t much of a delay at all. “Why am I saying this thing? I don’t know.”

“Sorry” has lost its meaning, she realised, no longer a heartfelt declaration of remorse but a knee-jerk response. Now, faced with the blinking cursor of a blank email, Ms. Julig asks herself, did I legitimately miss something, or mess someone else up? If the answer is no, she’s not sorry.

“Don’t give away your power,” counsels Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of a book about commanding authority at work. Apologising in business, especially when you’ve actually done something wrong, is just asking for trouble, he says.

People are never satisfied with an apology, he adds. Grovelling and exhibiting vulnerability only make you look weak and sink team morale.

Standing your ground comes with risks, he allows. You’ll piss some people off. You might not be liked. He thinks it’s worth it.

“You can either conform to what people want you to be, or you can decide that you are going to risk offending people,” he says. “Life is about trade-offs.”

When I searched my sent emails for the phrase, “Sorry for the delay,” the result was too many hits for Gmail to give me an exact count.

I tried, in the course of reporting this column, to cut back on my apologies. Mostly I failed, catching myself exclaiming sorry! when dialling in three minutes late for a call. A person I contacted for this piece apologised for only being available one of the days I suggested we chat, not the other. I flashed back to a clip of Taylor Swift, in which she apologises for “getting on her soapbox” about misogyny, then quickly catches herself.

“We’re, like, ‘Sorry, was I loud?’” the pop star says in “Miss Americana,” the Netflix documentary. “In my own house that I bought. With the songs that I wrote. About my own life.”

Words have consequences.

“Always feeling like you need to say ‘sorry’ makes you kind of feel like crap,” says Jen Fisher, the chief well-being officer for Deloitte. Last year, she logged her own apologies, flagging the ones that felt unnecessary and replacing them with expressions of gratitude.

Have to move a meeting? Try, “I appreciate your flexibility,” or “I’m grateful for your understanding,” she says. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to apologise for things out of your control, such as the weather or a client moving a deadline. Putting “sorry” on loop waters down the moments when you really do need to show remorse, she adds.

And of course, people often wield “sorry” to mean exactly the opposite, more a passive-aggressive insult than real contrition.

Shedding “sorry” can be empowering. Hannah Szabo grew up in Wisconsin, where—as in much of the Midwest, Canada and other regions—“sorry” sometimes serves as a conversation starter. She would drop one in during a pause in conversation, or when she felt uncomfortable.

Then she moved to Brazil. She was shocked to find that the students she was teaching barely apologised. At first, she was offended. Now, she basks in a culture without reflexive apologies.

Back in the Midwest on a recent trip, she almost grew angry when her mother apologised for accidentally sticking her seat belt in the wrong buckle.

“That does not qualify for a sorry, Mom,” she told her. “Take that back.”

Women apologise more than men, but a female co-worker’s apology doesn’t necessarily mean she’s claiming blame, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. She might just be trying to get her work done with a dose of graciousness, for example smoothing over a misunderstanding with, “Sorry, what I meant was…”

“Everything we’re doing is on some level trying to show we’re a good person at the same time that we’re trying to accomplish something,” Dr. Tannen says.

When I message “So sorry to bug you…” to my boss before asking a question that’s a necessary part of both our jobs, I’m showing respect for power differentials at the office, Dr. Tannen notes.

Still, some misinterpret women’s apologies as incompetence. When British leader Liz Truss last week apologised “for the mistakes” in pushing a risky tax plan, it was met with calls to resign. A few days later, she did.

Be aware of how others respond when you use words of contrition, Dr. Tannen cautions. If colleagues call out your apologising, you might explain that you were just saying you were sorry a thing happened, and not sorry sorry. If you hear that feedback often, consider an audit like Ms. Fisher’s.

Kingston Vickers tried. After moving to Texas years ago, the native Canadian resolved to remove the “ehs” and “sorrys” from his vocabulary. Doing so consumed so much mental effort that he grew flustered when talking and wasn’t as effective at his sales job.

Now he embraces his proclivity for apologies, and says his work has benefited. Apologising for his clients’ struggles or when he’s about to make an ask of them, builds trust, he says. It’s also a way of showing empathy.

“People underestimate the power of a kind word nowadays,” he adds.


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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