5 Things to Say Instead of “I’m Sorry”

When someone bumps you on the subway or while passing you in a hall, what’s your initial response? If you’re like most women, you default to a quick and hurried, “I’m sorry.” But why? Why do we apologize so quickly? Why do we apologize in situations where it’s not our fault? While sorry is appropriate in some circumstances, it’s certainly not necessary across the board. And, at times, it’s just plain bad for our self-esteem.

“Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them,” executive coach Bonnie Marcus told Fast Company in an article about why women apologize so darn much. Sometimes it’s just a verbal tic, but it also can be a sign of insecurity. The bottom line: we don’t need to apologize for everything.

I wasn’t even aware of this “sorry” problem until I watched this recent Pantene ad. Yep, a Pantene ad showed me the error of my ways. Funny, right? Funny, but true.

So how do you actually stand up for yourself at times when you’d normally apologize? Here are a couple scenarios where you might normally say “I’m sorry” but could be saying something else that’s a little more empowering. Consider it your #sorrynotsorry guide to life:

Scenario: You’re nudged by a stranger
Sorry Alternative: Turn and smile

If you get nudged while minding your own business, turn to the person who bumped you, look them in the eye and smile. Ignore your instinct to apologize and wait for them to apologize. Your confident demeanor will show that random stranger it’s all good.

Scenario: You’re late to a casual meet-up
Sorry Alternative: “It took forever to get here.”

Instead of rushing into brunch all flustered and harried, take a moment and compose yourself. When you walk in, simply say, “Huge traffic jam. It sucked. So, what’s everyone having?” The key here is confidence. Don’t avert your eyes or speak softly when you speak. Remember, you’re telling the truth.

Scenario: You totally forgot to do the thing you said you’d do
Sorry Alternative: “I’ve got a back-up plan.”

So you completely forgot to buy groceries like you promised. When you walk in the door and see your partner or roommate, don’t start making excuses why you couldn’t make it to the store. Instead say, “I’m starving. Let’s order in.” Take control of the situation without acting like it’s all your fault. You’re not single-handedly running the household and sometimes stuff pops up. No need to ask forgiveness.

Scenario: You haven’t finished that work project
Sorry Alternative: “Thanks for checking in.”

Your boss stops by to get an update on a project—and you haven’t completed it yet. Fight the urge to begin your response with, “I’m sorry,” and instead say, “Thanks for checking in. I’ll have this completed by Monday. I’ll let you know if I need additional time or help.” This is an assertive way to let her know you have a specific plan in place to complete the project—without being self-effacing.

Scenario: You never called/emailed someone back
Sorry Alternative: “How are you? I’ve missed you!”

When she calls again and asks why you didn’t call her back, say this: “I’m so happy you called me back. How are you?” Then ask her a pointed question that you know she’s been pining to talk about. Basically, move it along. If you’re the one initiating the follow-up, start with something like “I missed you” or “It’s been too long.” This way, you’re acknowledging the time-lapse without apologizing for it. Just eliminate the opportunity for anyone to place blame (or shame). After all, you’re only human, you make mistakes and your future actions are going to speak a lot louder than your “sorry” words.