Want Power? Stop Saying ‘Sorry’ So Much
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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.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

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

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Going warm and fuzzy for the 2024 Pantone Colour of the Year

Prepare yourself for the year of the peach

Fri, Dec 8, 2023 2 min

Pantone has released its 2024 Colour of the Year — and it’s warm and fuzzy.

Peach Fuzz has been named as the colour to sum up the year ahead, chosen to imbue a sense of “kindness and tenderness, communicating a message of caring and sharing, community and collaboration” said vice president of the Pantone Color Institute, Laurie Pressman.

“A warm and cosy shade highlighting our desire for togetherness with others or for enjoying a moment of stillness and the feeling of sanctuary this creates, PANTONE 13-1023 Peach Fuzz presents a fresh approach to a new softness,” she said.

Pantone Colour of the Year is often a reflection of world mood and events

The choice of a soft pastel will come as little surprise to those who follow the Pantone releases, which are often a reflection of world affairs and community mood. Typically, when economies are buoyant and international security is assured, colours tend to the bolder spectrum. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Gaza conflict and talk of recession in many countries, the choice of a softer, more reassuring colour is predictable. 

“At a time of turmoil in many aspects of our lives, our need for nurturing, empathy and compassion grows ever stronger as does our imaginings of a more peaceful future,” she said. “We are reminded that a vital part of living a full life is having the good health, stamina, and strength to enjoy it.”

The colour also reflects a desire to turn inward and exercise self care in an increasingly frenetic world.

“As we navigate the present and build toward a new world, we are reevaluating what is important,” she said. “Reframing how we want to live, we are expressing ourselves with greater intentionality and consideration. 

“Recalibrating our priorities to align with our internal values, we are focusing on health and wellbeing, both mental and physical, and cherishing what’s special — the warmth and comfort of spending time with friends and family, or simply taking a moment of time to ourselves.”

Each year since 2000, Pantone has released a colour of the year as a trendsetting tool for marketers and branding agents. It is widely taken up in the fashion and interior design industries, influencing collections across the spectrum. 


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

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

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