How Sorry Are You Really?

A New App Aims to Make You Less Apologetic

Here’s an interesting game to play if you monitor your boss’s emails. How many of the incoming emails start off by apologising (“I’m sorry to bother you, but ...”) or by minimising the subject (“I just need a quick word with you about ...”)? And of those, how many have been written by women? I’ll say this next bit in a whisper: are you even a bit guilty of doing this yourself?

The thinking behind Just Not Sorry, a new app for Gmail, is that women in particular (though not just women!) are prone to sabotaging the content of their emails by using certain words. The app works by highlighting the “weasel words” in your emails and giving you the opportunity to substitute them with something less, well, apologetic.

One apparently minor change with a big impact is to consider writing “thank you” where you would normally have written “sorry”. “Thanks for your feedback so far, which has given me a lot to think about” sounds quite a lot better than “Sorry not to have been in touch with you again before now”. Other favourites for substitution include the words “just”, “actually”, “I think” and “I’m no expert, but”.

The launch of the app has provoked an interesting debate in the media. There is general agreement that women in particular do at times undermine what they’re saying by hedging it with apologies and qualifying words. Whether or not that’s always a bad thing is more open to question. Some very exaggerated claims have also been made (not by the app’s makers, but by other media commentators) about the powers of Just Not Sorry: “The App You Need to Get Employed!” claimed Look UK. “Will Improve Your Sales in 5 Seconds Flat!” said Read.Learn.Sell.

It’s clear from the level of comment the app has generated that many, if not most, women are aware their default setting is “apology”, and that they are often quite irritated by this, particularly by the fact that the damage is self-inflicted. What’s also interesting is that these women work in every rank of business, from the office junior right up to the CEO. Even the most powerful of us, it seems, are not immune from apologising for something that is not actually our fault.

The real controversy is whether this approach is absolutely a bad thing or simply reflects, maybe to an exaggerated degree, the way that women build and maintain business relationships. We tend to be less confrontational because confrontation is not generally a particularly useful or efficient way of working, and our language reflects this. Instead of hammering out orders in an email filled with the language of entitlement, many women will attempt to persuade and to keep the recipient on-side. This is much more likely to be the case when the writer is asking for the attention of someone higher up the management chain.

One example of this is the phrase “Sorry to bother you with this” or something like it. Most of us are guilty of this one, usually when we have to drop a line on our boss’s behalf or our own to someone in senior management. One way of looking at this phrase is to say that it is totally unnecessary and is in fact damaging your cause. Is the subject of your email something that you really must bring to the attention of the recipient? If so, why are you apologising? By doing so you are only preparing the way, so the argument goes, for being belittled and dismissed by the recipient. 

Another way of looking at it, however, is that the writer of the email is showing consideration to the recipient, especially if that recipient is (or can safely be assumed to be) extremely busy, stressed or pressed for time. “I know you are extremely busy, but this needs your attention” may be a better way of expressing it than straight away apologising for the interruption, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with showing consideration to someone you work with or for. 

A number of women have noted their wry amusement that the phrase “I’m no expert, but ...” is seen by Just Not Sorry as disempowering. These women note that they use it when they are struggling to find a polite way to tell someone that the idea he or she has just come up with is totally idiotic. Should they give up struggling for the polite response and simply call out the idiocy? Well, perhaps. Personally, I prefer the civilised approach, though more alarming is the fact that this remark is frequently interpreted by some of those (possible) idiots as meaning “I know nothing and I respect your views”.

In fact, as some commentators have pointed out, there is much to be said in favour of the civilised approach. A more significant problem for us all - women and men alike - is that politeness and tact are often being interpreted in the business environment as signs of lack of confidence and weakness. Maybe someone ought to develop an app for that.