I’m sorry, not sorry, for bothering you

I’m sorry, not sorry series, written by Emily Clarkson, the voice of Pretty Normal Me, addressing shaking guilt and getting on with it

“I’m so sorry to bother you, I was just wondering…”

Hello and welcome to how I start every single email I have ever sent. Or at least, how I used to start every email I ever sent, but more on that later. This was how I spoke to everyone; apologising and grovelling was what I was famed for. 

I hated the idea of being an ‘intrusion’, I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone thinking of me as pushy or as annoying and so I’d do my utmost to tiptoe into any situation like a little mouse, silently hoping that no one would notice my arrival. 

I also really didn’t want to be rejected. Even bigger than my fear of intruding was my fear of rejection. I reasoned that the best way of protecting myself would be to enter every conversation in a way that would set me up for disappointment. The crushing blow that I considered to be inevitable somehow hurt less if I acted like I knew it was coming all along. 

I do a lot of this because I am a woman.

Now not all women suffer with this affliction, don’t get me wrong, but it IS a widely shared problem for women in the workplace, even if not a widely acknowledged one. 

As women, we are naturally empathetic people. We can’t help that; it’s how we are wired. We are taught to put other people’s needs before those of our own. We are culturally conditioned to do this: It’s not our fault.

Where being assertive in the workplace is concerned, some struggle to do it as well as the men that we know. The men who can just speak in a meeting and not feel the need to raise their hand before they timidly apologise for interrupting. The men who start every email by getting directly to the point because why should they be sorry for sending it in the first place? The men who are lucky enough to know for a fact that their very existence does not warrant an apology.

I discovered just how guilty I was of all of this at the end of last year; I’d asked my boyfriend to proofread an important email for me and he was absolutely horrified at how much preamble I had managed to fit into what he deemed to be a nice, concise request. 

“Did you even ask for anything here?” He said before re-writing the whole thing in a way that didn’t make me sound like I was asking to borrow this person’s baby for a few days and more like I was offering them an equally beneficial business proposal. I apologised to him for any inconvenience caused. 

At that moment, I vowed to make a change. Unless I had really, really fucked up, I was not going to start any more emails with the words “I’m sorry.”

Because I’m NOT sorry, not really. What I am is nervous, apprehensive and anxious. I’m not sorry, I’m scared. 

I’m not sorry for going after what I want, I’m not sorry for doing my best, for using my initiative and for wanting to do better. 

What I am, if I’m honest, is scared that you’re not going to give it to me. I am anxious that I am being rude. I am nervous that you will call me out. I am apprehensive to exert a confidence that I don’t feel I have. 

But that doesn’t make it okay. 

To tell someone that you are ‘sorry for bothering them’ is to imply that their time is somehow more important than yours. It suggests subordination. It portrays this ridiculous notion that we somehow don’t see ourselves as worthy.

And so I’m going to give you two important pieces of advice:

  1. Remove the word ‘sorry’ from your emails unless it is absolutely necessary. (eg. Sorry I took three weeks to reply to this / scratched your car / sat on your cat). My mum always told me to write whatever message I was going to write out perfectly and then to delete the first paragraph. It works. It just so happens that all the ‘sorrys’ live in the first paragraph, once that goes, so does every unnecessary apology.
  2. Tell yourself that you are enough before you send an email. Yes, you may well look like a bit of a knob giving yourself this sort of pep-talk every time you reply to an email, so I’m not necessarily asking you to vocalise it, but I implore you to at least hear it. Something I found to be really effective was writing the words down on a post-it note and sticking that on the side of my computer screen. A visual reminder that you don’t need to apologise for doing your job can be incredibly beneficial. 

There is plenty in life to be sorry for and ‘bothering’ someone is one of them.

But ‘bothering’ someone and replying to an email are two very different things. Replying to an email, speaking in a meeting, introducing yourself – that is not bothering. That is working, that is living. You’re not standing on their front lawn throwing rocks at their bedroom window, you’re not posting them riddles every morning, you’re not following them to work every day and shouting profanities at them.

Remember that difference, and stop being sorry for cracking on with your life.