I’ve read a lot about how women saying “I’m sorry” in the workplace. The irritating behavior, said writer Sloane Crosley in The New York Times, is “a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want.”
Refinery29 Web writer Lindsey Standberry did an experiment where she asked three co-workers to record how many times they apologized. The women said “I’m sorry” as few as 9 but as many as 47 times during a workday. All reported that it was a phrase they used when they were about to assert authority.
Finally, Washington Post writer Jessica Grose said, “’Sorry,’ but we don’t need new email plug-ins [that remind us not to use apologetic language in our written communications]. What we need is for people to stop picking apart the ways we communicate.”
This Revolutionary Assistant thinks the answer really lies somewhere in between, and it’s as much a personal issue as it is a badge of our gender. Effective communication is a mix of a speaker’s confidence and her ability to gauge the way in which the listener will best accept, internalize and respond to her message.
Sometimes, the speaker is best served by very direct communication that will result in a very direct action. For instance, if the building is on fire, a revolutionary communicator is not going to say, “I’m sorry, but can I ask you to head to the nearest stairwell?” She’s going to calmly and firmly direct everyone to safety.
Similarly, a female communicator might find that a subordinate responds best when he is told directly and firmly to take a course of action. However, that’s not always the case for women trying to communicate in the workplace. As Washington Post writer Jessica Grose pointed out, women are not always well received when they buck the soft-spoken cultural norms that are expected of them:
Because we’re already fighting against so many cultural assumptions, in many instances, women have discovered that they are more respected and successful when they conform to those gendered expectations. In [her book] Talking from 9 to 5, [author and Georgetown University linguist Deborah] Tannen offers the example of a doctor who is one of the few women in her specialty. At first, this surgeon tried mimicking the military-style order barking of the male surgeons who trained her. But that approach backfired — none of the nurses would listen to her. So she changed her way of speaking, because she found, “if you try to be authoritarian, like many of your male colleagues are, it won’t work with most nurses, but if you ally yourself with them and respect them as professional colleagues, they will be your best allies.”
Is it really fair that a woman, who is equal to her male colleague in every way, has to adjust the way she communicates to achieve a goal, while that male colleague can do the same without a single thought to his approach? Maybe not. But in my opinion, this is where we are in our evolution of women in the workplace, and a woman’s success isn’t dependent on how many times she apologizes or softens her phrase. A woman’s success is dependent on getting the result she wants.
In summary, if you’d like to count how many times you say “I’m sorry” in a day, by all means do so. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to strengthen your communication skills by becoming more direct. But if you choose to soften a directive with a quick apology so that it’s well-received and stands a better chance of being acted upon, do it with confidence. If that’s how you get what you want, if that’s how you achieve your goals, there’s nothing wrong with it. Go forth and apologize unapologetically!
Next Post: Wednesday, September 28