We’re Canadian and we have a reputation for being polite.

When we’re at the grocery store and somebody needs to push her cart past us, we say “sorry.”

If somebody bumps into us, we say “sorry.”

Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Go to the mall and listen for the number of “sorries” you hear. We could turn it into a drinking game!

But seriously, do you hear yourself apologizing too often?

What makes us say we’re sorry?

Sometimes, we don’t even know we’re saying it.

I did a little experiment recently with a client. I pushed past her and reached for a stapler without excusing myself.

She said, “oh, I’m sorry.”

I asked her why she said that, when I was clearly at fault for my rudeness.

She said she didn’t know I needed the stapler, but how could she? I didn’t say I needed the stapler or “please pass it to me.”

I could have even backed my chair up, walked around her and gotten the stapler myself.

Why did she apologize? Why do we apologize to let anyone ahead of us in a lineup? Why do we say it when we aren’t even sorry?

I see four different types of “I’m sorry.”

Social norms

Yep, it’s just us as Canadians. Psychologist Karina Schumann says it’s a cultural reflex.

It isn’t necessarily an apology. It’s a “politeness strategy — a way to have smooth, norm-abiding, harmonious interactions.”


Do you have a little brother? Did you ever punch him because he took your Spider-Man toy and played with it? What was the first thing your mom told you? You apologize! We’re conditioned to apologize for doing something, even though the person to whom we’re apologizing may be the one who created the environment for the offence. Weird.

Passive aggression

Have you ever apologized for your opinion? I see it on Facebook threads all the time. People start their comment off with “I’m sorry but …” or even “I don’t mean to offend you but …”

Stop right there. That “but” negates every word that preceded it. You aren’t sorry and regardless of offending, you’re going to say it anyway. What you’re really saying is “I don’t want to offend you but I’m about to say something that is going to offend you.” You aren’t taking ownership for what you’re about to say and you don’t really care if you offend anyone.

Too passive

This is my client with the stapler. She apologized to me for taking up space. Through no fault of her own, she was in my way and didn’t anticipate my need for the stapler. She apologized for not filling the empty paper tray in the printer, when it wasn’t even her responsibility. She apologized to her supervisor for giving back work that needed corrections; she apologized to colleagues for correcting their work.

My client was emotionally exhausted and she didn’t know why. She was a people pleaser, appeasing everyone in the office. She was trying to manage events that could happen and sometimes trying to prevent them from occurring.

Train yourself to be more confident

[tweetthis]People tend to be more passive when they don’t have a strong sense of self.[/tweetthis]

There’s a difference between the cultural habit of saying “sorry” when someone bumps into you on the street and the feeling like you don’t measure up.

When you apologize for being you or doing your job, it’s time for personal development.

And in the bigger picture, a passive personality can hold a corporate team back from achieving its goals. She — yes, our passive personalities in the workplace are generally women, so much that it holds us back from applying for powerful positions — can hold back deadlines, can be afraid of speaking up and can muddy the waters for others with clear goals and targets.

She is likely to hit a crisis point. She is frustrated because she isn’t really sorry. She isn’t expressing her true feelings, an environment ripe for resentment against the people she’s always apologizing to.

Her exhaustion can lead to a physical breakdown. The constant desire of appeasing everyone can lead to emotional stress.

My client was shocked into reality after a blowup at the office.

She sought my help.

A simple step toward confidence

Most passive personalities have no idea how to correct the behaviour of apologizing for their every act.

Because hindsight is 20/20 vision, I asked her to keep a diary, jotting down every incident that caused her to apologize.

Every time she heard herself say “I’m sorry,” she wrote a diary entry to note what happened and to whom she was apologizing.

She started to notice the pattern and realize she didn’t need to be apologizing every time. Today, she’s doing it about 60 per cent less frequently than she did when she came to me for individual coaching.

She admits that she catches herself before she says it and stops herself from uttering what can be very destructive words.

Once she becomes more comfortable with her new confidence, we can begin working on asserting her voice and developing her Leadership Lioness.

Apologize when you’re wrong

Not a single human on the planet should ever eliminate the phrase “I’m sorry” from her vocabulary.

When you drop a glass of red wine on your best friend’s beautiful light cream carpet, you damn well better apologize. (I’m not admitting to anything.)

When you say or do anything to negatively affect another person, please do the right thing and say it.

Your words, however, should have a real emotion, such as empathy, attached to them. You have to take your “I’m sorry” off automatic pilot … feel it and know why you are choosing to say it.

That’s when you take ownership for your behaviour, your actions, your thoughts and your emotions.

But when the paper tray is empty and you weren’t the last person to use the printer, you aren’t responsible and you don’t need to apologize for it.

Images courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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