Failing to apologize for your mistakes is a big sin in the workplace. It can cost you good coworker relationships—or worse, your job. But on the other hand, constantly apologizing, starting sentences with “I’m sorry…” or prefacing everything you say with “Sorry…” can make you seem weak, insecure, or indecisive. Politeness is one thing, being a doormat is another. It’s also not advisable to use “I’m sorry” as conversation filler, just like you wouldn’t use “like” or “um.”
Here are 13 particular circumstances in which you should never say I’m sorry:
1. When you’re really #notsorry
People can tell when you’re being insecure. Just like dogs can smell fear. If your sorry is very clearly sarcastic or insecure, don’t even bother saying it.
2. When you didn’t do anything
Aka when you have nothing to say you’re sorry for. It’s not polite to throw in a ton of meaningless apologies for normal things like expressing an opinion or ducking into the restroom.
3. When you’re sticking to your principles
A coworker, or even your boss, is suggesting you do something off your moral tracks. It’s okay to stand up for yourself. You don’t need to preface your “I don’t believe it’s right to lie [cheat/steal/defraud/etc.]” with an “I’m sorry.” You shouldn’t be.
4. When it’s your bad
You’re late or you didn’t finish a project on time. Don’t just fling out a “Sorry!” and hope that you’ll be immediately exculpated. In short: don’t abdicate your responsibility too often.
5. When it plants a bad seed
You may know that you didn’t spend quite enough time on that presentation, but there’s absolutely no reason to lead it off with that fact and an apology. Do the best with what you have and don’t give them a reason to doubt your work before you’ve managed to present it.
6. When you’re not prepared to own it
Sometimes we say sorry and consider it the end of the road. Forgiveness granted! If you’re going to wield the word, be prepared for the apology recipient not to get over it immediately. Some mistakes or wounds take time to heal and build back trust. Recognize when someone is perhaps not ready to forgive you.
7. When you quit
You’re not sorry you’re taking another job. If you were, you wouldn’t be taking it in the first place. Leading with an apology in this situation also opens the door for your boss to try and guilt you into staying. Better to stand firm and get out the door with good feelings on both sides.
8. When you had nothing to do with it
It’s much better to save your apologies for when you can and should assume 100% responsibility for the situation. Throwing ‘sorry’s around about things that were not in your control or in any way your fault will just take power away from you when you need to wield an apology for real.
9. When someone asks you to pass their apology along
If someone tells you to tell someone else that they’re sorry for [insert whatever actually bad thing they might have done], just stay out of it. Pass along the information that so-and-so wanted to say something to them or speak to them, and let it go at that. Don’t do their dirty work. If it’s just an innocent “Jane says sorry she couldn’t be here; she’s giving birth to her second child!” then that’s probably safe to pass along. Just stay away from the hairier stuff.
10. When you’re in the middle of debate
You’re having a heated argument, or a debate full of passion. The last thing you want to do is throw in a “sorry” to minimize the conflict, i.e. “sorry, I just don’t agree…” It weakens your position and it will almost always ring insincere.
11. When you’re genuinely upset
Someone does something legitimately upsetting to you or near you. You object. You’re more than justified in calling them out on their behavior. The last thing you want to do here is to say sorry first. “I’m sorry, but that was wrong” doesn’t leave enough room for the actual apology that you should be receiving from the wrong-doer.
12. When you’re asking for something
“I’m sorry, but could you [help me with/do for me/save the day]” is not a good thing to say when asking for help. If you actually felt bad, you wouldn’t have asked. Instead, after asking simply, humbly, and clearly, say thank you. Which should be what you really mean to say.
13. When the moment has passed
Especially if you’ve already apologized and everyone is already over it. Don’t rehash the past. Move forward! If you’re really still beating yourself up over something, then put that energy into making sure you never make that mistake again. No need to dredge up old drama. Keep moving forward instead.
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