Why I’m #sorrynotsorry

Why we should apologize less...and mean it more

When I was in high school, we had a teacher with an indeterminate European accent (remember, I’m American, we don’t study geography).  When we would inevitably get caught talking in class, the automatic response of the perpetrator was to quickly mouth ‘sorry’.  The teacher (it’s coming back to me that she was rumored to have had tea with TS Eliot, so maybe she was…British?) would then respond that sorry wasn’t sufficient and what she wanted was for us to change our behavior and stop talking!

This has stayed with me – and all these years later I’m still not a fan of ‘sorry’ because in most cases it’s an empty promise – instead of looking back, or even acknowledging the present, I’m much more interested in a forward-looking commitment, or even better, behaviour change.  I’m looking for Proof, not Promises, or, from a brand or a company, Act, not Ads (I do love an alliterative aphorism).

I have been thinking about the word sorry recently, and suspected that its frequent misuse and over-use could be attributed mainly to women and Brits (see endless BuzzFeed lists about excessive British use of the word sorry).  What finally prompted me to write this blog; however, was the realization that in fact the problem was far more wide-spread.

This realization came to me during a conference I attended last week.  What caught my intention was that numerous speakers – women and men, Brit and people of other nationalities – stood on stage repeatedly apologizing. ‘Sorry, this video is a bit long...’, ‘sorry, I’m getting to the end’.  I looked at them quizzically, thinking you don’t have to apologize to me, I chose to be here, I’ve made the deliberate decision to look up from the net-a-porter app; just get on with it and SHOW ME YOUR VIDEO.  I was left wondering why they apologized –in this instance, I have to conclude that the use of the word sorry was disingenuous – they knew they were running over, they knew they should care, but they didn’t care enough to cut down their presentation.   For me, this flippant use of ‘sorry’ undermines the power of the word, not to mention my opinion of the speaker.

Then just a few days later, the word appeared in my inbox – from a non-British, male colleague – how surprising, I thought.  He was apologizing for chasing me for something I hadn’t done, something that is in the remit of my job and something that I am paid to do.  In this case, it was an attempt at being understanding – he knew that he was asking me to do something tedious, which was exactly why I hadn’t done it yet.  While I appreciate the intent, I would suggest that in this instance the word ‘sorry’ landed as more empty than empathetic. 

Then there is sorry in other non-verbal forms – behaviors that suggest apology, often unnecessarily.  For example, isn’t fast talking a form of apology?  A suggestion the speaker is sorry to take up the listener’s time, so is trying to cram as much in as quickly as possible.  The fast talker implies that she (pronoun selected intentionally) isn’t worthy to take up space in the conversation.  Self-deprecation is also another form of apology – you know the narrative… ‘you might think I’m a super successful actress/executive/insert high-powered career here, but really I’m just a hot mess, insert entertaining anecdote here’.  I have mixed feelings about this one – I think being real about things helps women to create success on their own terms, but I would agree that there is a thin line between authenticity and apology – and it is something to be cognisant and careful of.

So it turns out saying sorry is not exclusively the domain of German auto-makers (or corporate villain du jour), women, or Brits – nor do you necessarily have to say the word sorry to express it.  If you have done something wrong, then by all means, have the courage to apologize.  But if you haven’t, have the conviction in what you are saying, writing or doing to proceed without apology or excuse.  So, if reading this blog has distracted you from your daily to-do list or delayed your reading of a BuzzFeed list on cats that resemble American presidential candidates… #sorrynotsorry.


Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search