Q: I have a colleague who I like, and she has a bad habit of always apologizing. She hasn’t even done anything to apologize for. Should I tell her to stop?
A: One of the most collegial things you can do for a work friend is bring something to her attention that is not serving her well in her at work. Be kind and supportive. “I really want you to be recognized as the great performer you are, and I’d like to talk about something you do that you may not be aware of, if that’s okay with you.” Getting permission to give feedback is a great way to start, as is letting her know your comments are coming from a good place. Bring her apologizing to her attention and encourage her to replace that phrase with something else or silence. Many women are conditioned to apologize for things that aren’t necessarily their fault, aren’t necessarily an imposition, and things that they shouldn’t apologize for. It becomes a habit that negatively impacts their professional demeanor. She may tell you she is entirely unaware of this behavior, or tell you she knows it’s an issue but doesn’t know how it’s perceived by her colleagues. People do want an apology for negative actions, bad behavior, and things that are worthy of an apology, but not for just existing or asking for support or other professional behaviors.
Let’s talk about just the language of apology: Some people will say, “Sorry,” if they’re interrupting. Some people will say, “I’m sorry,” as a way to get into the conversation. And some people will say, “Oh, I apologize for asking so many questions.” Different terminology can be used as different ways to serve those purposes. “Excuse me” is a great way to interrupt if you need to, or “I’m sorry for interrupting” also serves that case, but people should be very specific about what they’re apologizing for, especially someone with this behavior. If you have many questions, for example, you might need to make a statement such as, “I have a number of questions I’d like to ask. Is this the right place? Do we have time to address them here?” There’s no need to apologize for asking questions, unless you weren’t paying attention and all of those questions have already been asked and answered.
If she’s apologizing because she believes people will be angry at her and she is trying to avoid that, as a good friend, you might help her identify what her expectation is of the action that she’s going to take prior to apologizing. She may find that it is as much of a habit as when other people use “um” as a way to think or delay or to get space in the conversation. “Sorry” could be her speech filler.
You might also encourage her to observe other people who are exhibiting behaviors she apologizes for to see if she can find a more comfortable way to express herself without the apology. If she sees a colleague saying, “Can I interrupt for a minute?” or, “I have a point I’d like to make,” or addressing a manager in advance, saying, “I have a number of questions,” it might give her the confidence she needs to be able to express the same things similarly.
She may be an apologizer in her personal life, but, for now, you should stick to trying to help her change this behavior professionally. Often, people will respond with, “You don’t need to apologize,” and other people will just ignore it. Even so, it would be a great habit for her to break, especially if she wants to climb professional ranks, get promoted, and earn more responsibility.