6 Phrases to Replace “I’m Sorry.”
Everyone fucks up. Putting your pride aside and admitting when you’re at fault is a hard lesson, that is often learned through multiple mistakes and failed relationships (@ my ex, sorry.)
But what about when you’re not wrong?
In 2010 a pair of studies was conducted to compare and examine how often men and women apologize. A controlled group was tasked on keeping a journal in which they documented 1) the number of times they apologized for something they felt they had to, and 2) the number of times they felt that they were owed an apology. The results found that while both men and women apologized for 81% of the times that they felt they had done wrong, women reported significantly more instances which were offensive enough to warrant an apology. In other words: “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”
So it is true, women do apologize more often than men.
But why? What is it that is so deeply embedded in us to make us believe that we owe someone else an apology when we both reach for the same thing? Or when we take up space? Or when you bump into us? Or when we haven’t had time to answer an email? Or when we don’t want to give you our number? Or when we — this could go on for a while.
There are many theories as to why women feel the need to apologize more. One is that we feel, if we have been wronged, that our apologizing will prompt the other person to reciprocate that apology. Another is that it’s a reflection of low self-esteem. Another is that it is simply a habit, a verbal tick that is passed down between women, generation to generation.
Another theory, that I personally find to be most true in my life, is that women are so scared of being perceived as rude that they would rather take responsibility for something that they haven’t done wrong, in order to make another person like them. Please let me be clear:
I would rather be called a bitch than belittle myself to make you feel better.
And I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this.
Which is why I’ve compiled this list. The words “I’m sorry” give the other person in your conversation the upper hand, which they may not deserve. Before jumping to the immediate knee-jerk reaction of “I’m sorry” when faced with confrontation? Pause. Ask yourself if you are actually sorry. And when the answer is “no” try one of these on for size:
1. “I don’t owe you anything.”
When to use it: When someone won’t take no for an answer.
I am constantly astounded by the number of men who don’t realize in this post-#MeToo era how often women encounter unwanted sexual attention and/or contact. If a woman doesn’t want to speak to a man at a bar, it may have nothing to do with him and everything to do with her concern for her own safety. Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s a complete stranger. Or maybe it is because of a different reason entirely. The point is that he doesn’t know and he is not owed an explanation.
Everyone has a right to their privacy. Everyone has a right to their own personal boundaries. Don’t apologize for exercising these very basic rights.
2. “I understand.”
When to use it: When you have to answer for a problem that you didn’t cause.
This is something that I learned while working in the service industry. Let’s say a server enters a customer’s order correctly, the kitchen misreads their instructions, and the customer receives the incorrect dish. The second that the server says “I’m sorry” they are taking responsibility for the mistake, and it will probably reflect in their tip.
Instead, let the person who fell victim to this mistake know that their frustration is fair, it is heard, it is validated, and that you will do everything in your power to fix it. Then go into the kitchen and start yelling and throwing things.
That is a joke, please do not create a hostile work environment.
3. “Thank you.”
When to use it: When you have used another person’s time.
Picture this: you have spent the last hour talking with your best friend about a rough situation she is going through. You’ve listened to her vent, you’ve made her laugh when you can, you’ve given her advice. After all of that, she ends the conversation with “ I’m sorry I keep going on about this.”
You read that last line exactly in her voice, didn’t you?
That’s because we are all guilty of this. When you are on the receiving side of that apology it seems insane — of course you want to be there for her, that’s what it means to be a friend. But when it’s you who has been venting, it feels like you are being selfish taking up another person’s time. You’re not. We all need to take time, we all need support. We also all need to hear “thank you” from time to time. Instead of saying “I’m sorry that I keep venting” try saying “Thank you for being a great friend” or “Thank you for helping me through this.” Remember, a grateful heart is a happy heart.
4. “I’d like to expand on that.”
When to use it: In place of “sorry to interrupt.”
Work in a male-dominated field? Meet your new favorite catch-phrase. Though many women see apologizing as a form of respect, prefacing your input with “I’m sorry, could I just say…” will make what you have to say seem unimportant. Instead, starting sentences with “I’d like to add” is direct, and will let those listening know that what you are saying has intention.
Have confidence in what you say, and others will too.
When to use it: When the circumstances are out of your hands.
I, an actor, get an email offering me a role in a gig that rehearses 9–5 on weekdays: exactly at the same time as my day job. I could answer the email with “I’m sorry, I will be unavailable at that time.” But am I? In order to take this gig that lasts two months and pays next to nothing, I would have to quit my full-time day job (which I love, by the way), lose all my benefits, and hope that something comes up after this gig ends. I am not sorry. So instead, I reply with “Unfortunately, I will be unavailable at that time.”
And once this is published, I never work with that company again. Oops.
6. “Excuse me” or “Pardon me”
When to use it: When getting someone’s attention.
You ordered a black coffee and somehow wound up with an iced skinny soy caramel macchiato. You approach the barista and say “I’m sorry, I think I got the wrong drink.” Even though it makes absolutely no sense to apologize for receiving the wrong order, using “I’m sorry” is a common way to get someone’s attention. Starting a conversation with “I’m sorry” implies that you are not worth their time from the start. “Excuse me” is still a polite way to get someone’s attention, without diminishing the worth of your words.
Bonus: “Excuse me” and “pardon me” also work as great replacements for “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
Another bonus: “Excuse me” and “pardon me” also work as great replacements for “I’m sorry” when you bump into someone. Humans take up space, sometimes it accidentally happens to be the same space at the same time. It can be awkward, but life goes on.
All of these phrases are strong replacements for the meaningless apologies that do nothing but diminish the value of your time, your words, and ultimately your worth. That being said, there is a time and a place for “I’m sorry.” Whether or not your intentions were malicious, when you are in the wrong apologizing is a necessary practice that requires both strength and maturity. These apologies will also be considerably more meaningful when you’re not saying “I’m sorry” a thousand times a day.
Your words are powerful, use them wisely.