by Catie Lazarus
Every business “expert,” career advisor, and their mothers will warn job seekers to avoid vocal fry, up speak, mumbling, meandering, cursing, spitting, or slip-ups, Freudian or otherwise. I’m guilty of committing all of the above, but my worst verbal tick, I’m sorry to say, is over-apologizing.
Of course, admitting fault is thoughtful and expected, but apologizing in excess can be a form of self-sabotage. Much to my chagrin, it’s also hard to stop kicking yourself.
In third grade, my teacher Mrs. Garber tried to exorcise my habit. Each time I apologized, she’d dot my forehead with a Crayola red marker. If I didn’t apologize for the day, she’d put candy in a bowl and give it to the class. But when Ms. Garber discovered that the school cook had been slipping me desserts, she was livid. Who knew my wolfing down an extra pudding pop was a civic matter? Still, Mrs. Garber snatched the candy bowl away. You can imagine how thrilled my classmates were. Whatever I’d been sorry about, I was never as sorry as I felt after that public humiliation.
Perhaps if I’d finished my doctorate in clinical psychology, I’d know the cause (or cure) of my sorry habit. Sure I was raised to respect those who admit when they’re wrong, but who wasn’t? I did consume loads of British television (or tele) programs. Perhaps I learned from Faulty Towers or Upstairs Downstairs that the English will preface even the most mundane question with an apology, like “Sorry to bother but….” It seemed then (and now), that in England, verbalizing humility doesn’t translate as a lack of self-respect.
Of course, the business world, whatever side of the pond you work on, doesn’t reward compunction. Obviously, most corporations, which (or who?) are technically individuals now, don’t take responsibility for missteps unless they have to. I have a pulse. I also get that mentality filters down. Workers are not rewarded for apologizing. But I didn’t realize how sorry I’d be for over apologizing until I became a corporate shill.
I was hired to write for children. It was a dream job and came with the usual perks: health insurance, unlimited printing, and stale, but free, coffee. I loved being able to pay rent on time, save, and, moreover, enjoyed my work and colleagues. A couple months after I started, my youngest colleague Kayla got promoted to be my supervisor. I wish I knew then how sorry I’d be for congratulating her.
We still sat next to one another. Before her promotion, I’d pushed for Kayla to take the most coveted corner desk near the only window, wanting to protect the runt in our division. Back then, we’d get lunch, initiate meetings outside of the office, and she’d confide her own aspirations to me that she wanted to become a novelist. But once in charge, she kept her headphones on, stopped answering my emails, and barely made eye contact. She didn’t want to acknowledge the change and, as a result, couldn’t have made it more awkward.
I tried to mirror her cues and take a stab at avoiding the avoider. I focused on my work, branched out and connected to other colleagues. But I’d walk by meetings in the glass walled conference rooms, meetings I used to be invited to, confused as to why I was no longer needed.
Swimming in insecurity, I started to over apologize.
“Sorry if I missed something, did you send the email with the meeting time?” I’d ask, knowing full well she had not invited me.
No answer. Silence. There’s a fine line between towing the line and strangling yourself, and I started to lose my footing. I felt ill when I heard we were getting performance reviews. I hated tests so much that I’d thrown up during my GRE.
But Kayla gave me a perfect score! Her comments were equally effusive. She then asked me to rate her. I was supposed to review my supervisor and have her sign off on it. I couldn’t indicate how I felt and expect her to sign off without repercussions. I gave her positive scores and didn’t add any comments. Yet, I idiotically took her positive review as evidence that things would be fine; even though I’d lied in my review of her.
Things did seem okay for a bit. After a couple more months, Kayla even invited me to a meeting. She took credit for what I’d worked on for the past 11 months and didn’t introduce me to new folks at the table. I decided to say something. I didn’t apologize. I simply asked her if we could talk. She said no and shoved her headphones back in.
A week later, I got sacked. It was a Tuesday afternoon. My boss gave no notice. No pay through the rest of the week. My health insurance would expire three days later. Kayla made no eye contact. I was told that my being “let go” was merely corporate “restructuring.” As she took my papers out of my hand, shut down my computer, and offered to walk me out of the building, the only thing I had to be grateful for was that she didn’t apologize. She wasn’t sorry.
Catie Lazarus is a writer and comedian. She has contributed drivel to The Daily Beast, Slate, Cosmo, Bust, Gawker, and edited the “Kvetch Section” for Heeb Magazine. She also hosts the podcast Employee of the Month, which is taped live monthly at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.