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The Perils of “Please” and “Sorry”

Take-away: Ask with authority by cutting the unnecessary “please” and “sorry” from your vocabulary

Whether you’re dealing with a spouse, child, friend, colleague, or donor, it’s tough to make someone do something if they really don’t want to do it. When we ask for help (or a gift), we seek to persuade someone to act from the goodness of their heart – to do so as part of a reciprocal relationship, or perhaps because it will advance their own agenda.

But many of us, particularly women, weaken our requests by overusing “please” and “sorry.”

“Please finish your report that was due last Tuesday,” we may implore or wheedle, “could you please submit your invoices?” We begin reasonable requests with apologies such as, “I’m so sorry to bother you,” or, “forgive me if this is a bad time, but…”

Some of this is gender-specific. For example, a group of students was asked to review a dialogue, underlining the words and phrases that they thought most likely male or female. Two of the top three female-identified phrases were, “you might say please,” and the single word, “please.” Gender linguist Deborah Tannen speculates that men may be likelier than women to see an apology as admitting they are wrong, and so putting themselves in a weaker position.

Some of this is cultural. Apologies may reflect humility and good manners in Japan. It may spring from personality, like my absent-minded husband who once apologized when bumping into a wall.

Don’t surrender your authority. Use these three tips to strengthen your ask:

  1. Start positive: Rather than, “I’m sorry to take up your time,” try, “I’m so glad I caught you!” Replace, “please enter those names…” with, “enter those names and we’ll get your story out first thing tomorrow morning.” Focus on positive impacts and shared goals.

  2. Edit your emails: Cut overly passive language from your email When I catch myself using “please” and “sorry” too often, I replace them with straightforward, positive requests. Your emails will become shorter, clearer, and more likely to be read.

  3. Take minutes: This apparently servile task holds great power. Agreeing in a meeting that, “we’ll do it,” means no one will do it. I give deadlines and individual names to unassigned tasks. The work gets done to everyone’s benefit. If someone objects, I know they’re paying attention!

“Never apologize for having high standards. People who really want to be in your life will rise up to meet them.” – Ziad K. Abdelnour

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