Here is a classic P.G. Wodehouse quote that so illustrates this misplaced focus of posturing to forge relationships: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”
In business writing, this is not true!
We often feel that an apology means we are taking responsibility for situations not caused by us. No! A good apology means we care. It shows we are responsible. It proves we value people and can be trusted.
Here are examples of an apology where you did not err:
Here is an example of an apology where there is a need to admit liability:
We all want to avoid unpleasant situations, but sending a note indicates you take the liability seriously, and are truly sorry. It conveys a sincerity that a simple phone call does not.
When you overstep, and say things you regret:
I’ve heard executives say they never want to document any errors in writing, but I disagree. Instead, this documents Kara’s realization and apology, in addition to enhancing her business relationship with Ashok.
- Overtly state you are sorry. “I apologize.” “I’m sorry.” “I regret.”
- Ask the reader to accept your apology.
- Summarize what happened, to reflect your understanding.
- Offer remedies, if this is needed.
- Address only the apology in your note. Keep it to this one subject.
- Don’t infer your reader was also to blame. Not: “I only wish you had been more clear my attendance was needed.” Address only your own actions.
- Don’t blame anyone else. Not: “My team leader was unclear with his instructions, so I thought I was to present next week, not this week.”
- Don’t globalize the issue. Apologize for this situation, at this time. Not: “I’m sorry I was late, but you rarely start meetings on time. I thought I would arrive before the meeting started.”
- Most importantly, don’t use the common “sorry, but” formula. It’s insincere and makes you look angry. Not: “I’m sorry I overreacted, but you were not clear about your instructions.”
In many business writing courses, I hear from clients they worry an apology intimates they are weak or error-prone. Don’t fall into this insincere power-broking writing formula. Good business communication fosters connection and relationships, not a false power dance.
Words are powerful, and a thoughtful, honest, un-obsequious apology respects both you and the recipient. It will always enhance your career.