Ask the Etiquette Expert: Breaking the Habit of Overusing an Apology

Dear Diane,

I have gotten into a habit I am hoping you can help me break. I started a new job with a company, and my goal is to be promoted within the next several months. I find myself annoyed at coworkers who attend meetings and start every sentence with an apology but recently noticed I do the same thing! What is this all about and how can I break the habit?

There are times when apologizing is an absolute necessity and the right thing to do. A sincere delivery in the right circumstances can go a long way, both personally and professionally. But for many, "I'm sorry" has become a catchphrase for joining an existing conversation or giving an opinion without being perceived as a threat. It's a common gesture used to appear polite while attempting to make others more comfortable.

Saying "I'm sorry" is seen as a convenient, instantly reassuring phrase that can smooth over a variety of potentially awkward situations. It often appears when someone extends a kindness or offers assistance: "Sorry to trouble you!", "I'm sorry, but can you explain that again?", "So sorry, it was totally my fault."

However, overuse of the term can mean you'll come across as insecure and powerless, conveying a lack of authority. Prefacing a statement with an apology places you immediately in a subordinate position and puts you at a disadvantage. The following are five instances where you should skip the apology.

  • When requesting help. There is no reason to apologize when asking for a few minutes of a colleague's time for their keen eye or some constructive feedback. Maintain a professional tone and eliminate the regret: "I would like some clarification on the direction of the Jones project. Are you free for 15 minutes this afternoon?" Your colleague will be more than happy to provide their keen eye and share any observations.
  • When presented with an awkward situation. If you have been waiting in line at a busy service counter and notice someone standing front and center in another aisle say, "Excuse me, the line starts here." Smile, keep a friendly tone and motion backward to the people waiting patiently behind you.
  • When correcting a mistake. If the waiter brings you the wrong order, instead of saying "I'm sorry, I ordered chicken," opt for, "There seems to be some confusion. I ordered grilled chicken and this is fried fish." The server will understand and take care of it immediately.
  • When making a decision. A leader identifies themselves by their affirmative views and opinions. Seldom will you hear a person in power say, "I could be wrong, but I think we need to go in a different marketing direction." Instead, reply, "After doing the research, it's my opinion we should consider another marketing strategy."
  • When someone extends an apology for a fault or error. It's common for one person to say there are sorry for a transgression, and then the recipient shifts the blame onto themselves. The other person then objects and the apology is volleyed back and forth. Next time someone apologizes, accept it with grace: "Thank you for your apology. I appreciate you taking care of the situation."

Having a clear understanding of when an apology is called for can strengthen a relationship, show empathy and enhance your credibility. Using it appropriately is the key.

You may also find Diane's How to Be More Productive in the Office helpful. Visit her blog, connect with her here on The Huffington Post, follow her on Pinterest and Instagram and "like" The Protocol School of Texas on Facebook.