As Asian, we pride ourselves with being polite. As a cultured society, we try to treat everyone nice and be polite to everyone we meet. Some of us nod our head, some of us smile, some of us speak in a soft tone, some of us bow. And yet, we forgot that such gestures are not always understood by people not of the same culture. We now live in a modern and multi-national society. A global village. If we meet a stranger and we bow, is that ok? This really depends on who you are. If you are Asian, most likely you think that it’s ok. But if you are from the west side of the world (bule), you probably don’t think this is ok. It’s weird to you. Same goes for being apologetic.
Truth be told, a certain group of westerners do think that saying ‘sorry’ is a sign of weakness. I think this mostly boils down to being egoistic. Yet, after so long, it has become a norm not to admit your mistake and apologize. So, it is ok to say sorry? I would say, being balanced on this would be the best. And use it according to situation. Let us take being in the office as an example.
The workplace is professional and formal environment. Being so, it is NOT the place for employees/colleagues to share gossips, talk about their love life, describe how awful their mother-in-law is, how bright your son is, etc. All of these are not relevant to work and would be at best kept outside of office. Although, we all talk about certain aspects of our personal life with our colleagues, always keep in mind the general rule. Personal feelings and issues are not to be freely shared in office. Thus applies to saying sorry. You see, everytime you apologize, there is an aspect of personal touch/feeling involve. “Sorry” is a personal word which portrays that you are regretful on the action you did earlier. And the worse thing is, ‘sorry’ is not quantifiable. E.g. forgetting to type the report VS approaching your busy boss to ask him a question. Which is less ‘sorry’ than the other? You forgot your job to type the report? Or you want to interrupt your boss to ask him something about work? The fact is, forgetting to type your report is a big ‘sorry’ while approaching your boss is not so much ‘sorry’. So, can you say, “I’m a little sorry. Can I ask you a question boss?” No.
Now using the example above, clearly, you have to apologize for neglecting your work and forgot to type the report. So, perhaps during meeting, when this is brought up, apologize by saying sorry and give a reason why have you forgotten. And then give a solution to prevent this from happening again. Now this whole process is the process of saying ‘sorry’. Sorry ->Reason ->Prevention. Yes, it has to follow this structure in any time and situation. Saying sorry is an elaborated process and cannot be easily done. You cannot just simply say ‘sorry’ and look down. People want to hear more on why it happened and are hoping you can give a solution how you will prevent this in future. Have you wondered why some people continue to be angry even after you apologize and they kept asking you if you have anything else to say? I am one of such person. This is because; they are generally waiting for you to complete this process of saying sorry. They want to hear, if nothing else, a solution to prevent this again.
Having explained the process of saying sorry, let us look at the second example, where you approach your busy boss to ask him a question. Before you even approach him, ask yourself this question. Is it so urgent that you must disturb him when he is busy? Can it wait until boss is less busy? Ok, if it cannot wait, let’s go to his office. Knock knock. “I’m sorry boss (sorry for what?). I have to ask you a quick question (fine). I promise this will be quick and it will not happen again (are you sure?).”
You see, the whole process is lengthy and waste even more of your boss time. Bosses are usually intelligent and efficient people. Being efficient, they HATE wasting time. And if you disturb them to waste their time, they will be annoyed. So, here is a solution. Instead of saying sorry, why don’t you try getting straight into what you want? Saying sorry confuses your boss because at the first sentence (I’m sorry), they will immediately think, “O shit, what have you screw up again?”. Let us try to disturb our boss by saying this. “Boss, do you have 5 minutes? I have something to ask you about conference hall B”. This approach is much better. By avoiding the ‘sorry’, you are also slowly building up an image of strength and confidence to your boss.
I had a similar incident of the example above. In my office, there is a muslim mail lady, in charge of mailroom. Occasionally, she will come over to my corner and put mail into our mail tray. Usually, when she comes over, I would just ignore her because she will just put some mail into the tray and walk off. One day, she walked over and I was busy working at my report. She approached me and say, “I’m sorry ya alex. Please don’t be angry ya.” The first thing that came to my mind was “what mistake she made?” Then she continued, “Alex, I want to ask you if this mail is for your department”. Omg. That really wastes my time & attention. To me, that’s really bad because it interrupted my focus on my work, took my mind of my report for something so trivial. So, I just put on a fake smile and reply her saying that it not ours. Then she walked off. Her image just dropped to me. I look at her now as weak, no-confidence, scared and kind of useless to do anything important. Why? All because she apologized for doing her job. If you are doing your job, others should be helping you. You cannot apologize for doing your job. Also, it’s not like she don’t know me. We have talked and know each other for 1 year now. When she comes in, I was busy at work. Why did she need to apologized? I hated that. Totally waste my time because she says ‘sorry’.
A better way is saying “Hi Alex. Is this mail for your department?” By being direct and confident, I do not need to think about other things. I just need to reply you and get back to my work. And that is how most non-muslim thinks. We prefer to focus on our work and do not place feelings above our task. When you are given a task, doing it should be above everything else. Of course, you do not offend others but you do not need to feel ‘sorry’ for doing it. I will list down situations where you should NOT say sorry below:-
– You are busy typing and your colleague/boss wants to chit-chat/genit with you.
– Approaching someone when he/she is busy typing in the office. (Look, nobody will be sitting free in the office. So, if you want to talk to anyone in the office, does that mean, you have to say sorry to everyone?)
– When you want to ask for permission. You do not need to say sorry if you want to ask permission. E.g. when a waitress wants to set your cutlery, she does not say sorry. She says “May I?”
– When your boss is angry with you but you do not think that is correct. Do not argue immediately, but do not apologize because you think you have not made mistake. Only say sorry when you are sure it is your own mistake.
– Excuse me is not the same as sorry. Please get this clear and do not be confused with the both of these.