Take a moment, and type the word, “sorry” into the search function of your email program’s sent folder. I did, and despite all of my training on how to communicate with confidence, I was astounded by how many times I typed that word in my emails.
We know that women typically apologize more than men, but do we know why? Researcher Karina Schumann conducted a study in which 33 male and female university students, ages 18 to 44, maintained an online diary and noted whether they apologized or did something they believed warranted an apology. The participants also recorded how often they felt they deserved an apology from a friend. Women apologized more and reported committing more offensive acts. Women rated the offenses of others as more severe than men did, and women were also more likely to say the friend deserved an apology. But it’s not that men are hesitant to admit fault; men have a higher threshold for what they think warrants an apology. Women often have a lower threshold for what requires an apology because they are invested in the emotions of others, and they strive to maintain harmony in relationships.
It is important to note that when we say, “sorry” it does not always mean we are apologizing for our actions. Sometimes we are expressing sympathy for someone else’s misfortune. But it’s important to eliminate—as much as possible—language that can make us appear weak and place us at a disadvantage. When we draft an email containing, “I just thought…” instead of, “I thought…” we are immediately apologizing for our ideas. Or, if we type, “I’m no expert, but …” we are immediately warning our colleague to disregard our message. Try this simple tactic: instead of writing or saying, “I’m sorry,” try “thank you” instead. For example, if you take a few days to respond to someone’s email, avoid writing, “I’m so sorry I’m late responding to you.” Instead, write, “Thank you for being patient.” If you make a mistake in a proposal, say or write, “Thank you for pointing that out.” This method reframes the situation into something more positive. If you wish to speak to a colleague or a boss, do not say, “I am sorry to bother you, but ...” Instead, try, “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Remember, your ideas are not burdens. Save the apologies for true transgressions and ensure you express them in person, not in writing.
If you conducted a search for “sorry” in your email program’s sent folder and are unnerved at what you found, you are not alone. IT experts observed the need for a tool that would eliminate apologetic language in emails. They created a G-mail plug-in, “Just Not Sorry,” that highlights phrases such as, “I just thought…” The plug-in will scan your email for any words or phrases that weaken your message and diminish your voice. Download the plug-in for free using the Chrome browser.
I have found these additional tips helpful when striving for strong email communication:
1. Check your grammar. If you need a little assistance as you write, enroll in the online writing app, Grammarly, which highlights any errors.
2. Be aware of your tone. Emails often cause misunderstandings because a tone is misinterpreted. Avoid using exclamation marks and writing words in all capital letters.
3. Write concisely and keep your emails brief. Begin your email by explaining why you are writing.
4. If you receive an email that upsets you, wait 30 minutes before responding. It can be tempting to respond immediately, but you will inevitably sound unprofessional because you are angry.
5. Remember that anything you put in writing can be forwarded. My former editor once told me, “Don’t put anything in email that you wouldn’t want published in the newspaper.” I still sometimes ask myself that question before sending an email.
We want to communicate effectively in meetings and in one-on-one conversations. Expressing ourselves with confidence in email correspondence is equally important.