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Sorry is not the hardest word after all

By Katy Guest

Published 16/01/2016

Katy Guest
Katy Guest

The average Briton says sorry eight times a day, according to research conducted in 2011 by a New York company. If the average Briton read the newspapers and listened to Radio 4 last week, they'd be forgiven for thinking that women and TV's David Mitchell must be responsible for bumping up those averages considerably.

The week-long series Behaving Ourselves: Mitchell on Manners offered some fascinating insights, many into the presenter's own social phobias when it comes to dress codes, forks, and hugging. Poor Mr Mitchell worries a lot about manners. This is the man who once wrote: "In my ideal world, whenever two people met they would both say sorry. Just to clear the air."

David Mitchell would be thrown into a tailspin by a new app, aimed at women in the workplace, called "Just Not Sorry". It works on emails much like a spell-check, by highlighting what it calls "qualifying" and "diminishing" language. Naturally it makes no demands on its female users, but it does gently suggest that they avoid terms such as "sorry", "just", "actually", "I think", "I'm no expert" and "does that make sense?" if they want to be seen as serious professionals.

I am something of an expert, having conducted a similar experiment with my email language. I do use "sorry" liberally when I notice I've caused damage or am in the wrong, but I no longer apologise for myself, my opinions, or other people's mistakes.

Apologising, like chocolate, is a hard habit to shake; but let's be honest, I'm not really sorry that a cold caller rang while I was out and I don't need to apologise if someone puts me on a database of contacts for press releases about New Year diets, to take two recent examples.

With practice, the I'm not really sorry apology becomes easier to eliminate. For instance, a sentence that begins, "I'm sorry but …" can usually be struck out, the "but" working as it does in the statements "I'm not being rude but …" or "I'm not a racist but …". When "sorry" is used, it is more meaningful for being meant.

The app should make us stop and think - whether we are British, or women, or in the workplace - about when a thing is really worth apologising for.

I'm not "sorry" for that opinion. You know that "I think" it because I have taken the trouble to write it down.

And it does "make sense". Actually.

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