Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sorry Not Sorry — There's An App for That!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Do you ever catch yourself giving a knee-jerk apology in emails? Or "softening" your language online? "So sorry, but I need to reschedule the meeting... "Or, “This may sound crazy, but..."

Tami Reiss created the app "Sorry Not Sorry" after making a New Year’s resolution to rid her emails of these minimizers and apologies. Her app has been available for download since the end of December as a Chrome extension designed to edit these verbal tics. It works by underling apologies, self-minimizing phases, and self-demeaning words in your emails (such as "I'm no expert, but....") in red. When you move your cursor over the underlined word, it gives an explanation as to why it's a weak word/phrase choice, For example, Tara Mohr says, “ ‘Just’ demeans what you have to say. ‘Just’ shrinks your power.” And Sylvia Ann Hewlett tells us: “Using sorry frequently undermines your gravitas and makes you appear unfit for leadership.”

I have to admit, I have a few of these flaws in my emails. Usually, I go back and fix them on my own, but I'm also guilty of lots of exclamation points (!!!) And the occasional smile face icon. Why? Well, I remember being in a job at a publishing house when I was in my twenties and being told by a male boss that my letters and emails were "cold." Couldn't I be friendlier? Like the other (female) assistant, who drew smiley faces on her business letters? And, being twenty-five and wanting to keep my boss happy and my job, I did.

Well, that was (ahem, many) years ago — and now I wonder what exactly the male assistants' letters sounded like, and if they were encouraged to make smile faces. I think not. Could I have used this program back then? Maybe, although I really do think that "cute" language was encouraged by management.

Now I work for myself and do tend to bend over backward to be friendly, especially online, where tone can seem colder than intended. Still, reading about this program makes me wonder about this tendency in myself. I did download Chrome to try it out, but I have to say I'm not in love with it as a browser, and so never really used the app much. But it has made me read through my writing with a more critical eye, looking for anything needlessly apologetic.

And so, here's to us women (and men, too, of course) being clear and strong in our emails and writing — with or without the help of an app.

Reds, do you see the tendency to apologize and soften language in your correspondence? Would you ever try an app to see how much you really use diminishing phrases? If you do try it, please tell us how it works for you.

LUCY BURDETTE: Honestly, I drive myself crazy with exclamation points and smiley faces and LOL's in emails. I would never put any of that in a book or story, so why is it ok in messages?? So interesting about your publishing house experience Susan--were you asked to put smiley faces on rejections? I've gotten plenty rejections in my career, but never one like that LOL LOL.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I am BIG on using capital letters in emails and posts, :-)  and then I often go back and take them out because it looks so silly and childlike. But not always. And smiley faces, too, are a useful shortcut, because they're a quick way to imply "meant to be funny" or "shrug, what are you going to do, you know?"
It's such a fascinating topic, "being friendly."  There's a difference between being assertive and being brusque, and that's difficult to transmit in emails.

So I just realized I was thinking: should I change it to.. "can be difficult to transmit"? Or "is sometimes difficult to transmit"?

("just" in the above case meaning "right now" and not "only.")

(oops, did it again.)

And, finally, only peripherally apropos, :-) I just wrote a short story for the Laurie R King Les Klinger Sherlock Holmes anthology that's based on my "Holmes" character's antipathy for email emoticons.

Back to the topic: yes, I definitely consciously try to make sure my emails are not brusque... And how guys email (and talk on the phone) is a whole separate topic. As in: I always say goodbye. Jonathan doesn't.


HALLIE EPHRON: What is so easy to do in an email or text is to be SO (caps! exclamation point)  brief that you sound rude. Why insult someone when you don't mean to? So I'm all for the softening which I see as emotional leavening. And in my experience it's not about gender.

An aside, one thing I try to do more and more whenever I interact with someone is to say Hello, how are you today? Look them in the eye. And mean it. Connect personally before I get down to business. Cashiers in the market, tellers at the bank, everyone out there's a person and when you sit behind a computer too much you can tend to forget that.

RHYS BOWEN: Not sounding rude in emails is something I battle with all the time. I'm so keen to say what I have to that I forget to start with the polite Hi. How are yous.  Often I notice that they sound as if I'm barking out a command or a request when I'm not and I have to add politeness.
My big regret is that there will never again be the collected correspondence between two literary figures. When I've just had an interesting email exchange with someone well-known I think about this and how the snippets of wit or humor will be lost forever. Maybe I should save or print out our emails, just in case?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, I have such a problem with this. CAPS. Exclamations!!! Justs and sorrys. Often I write what I really want to say, then go back and add in "softeners."  But if you read literary correspondence, as Rhys mentioned, they didn't forget the niceties. They were certainly more graceful with them, however.

On the other hand, my hubby sends one word texts and one line emails, "just getting the job done," and I always feel a little insulted that they are so abrupt. There must be a happy medium.

I have Chrome but it's not my default browser (don't particularly like it) but I may try that app. At least thinking about this should make me more aware.

I'm very big on making personal contact--look people in the eye, smile, say, "how are you?" It does make a difference, so it should in emails, too.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I do think there's a 
middle ground between barking out one-liners and using so many softeners and qualifiers it sounds like you're a wet dishrag. I try to write professional emails the same way I would write letters: salutation, polite but to the point body, farewell. 

Deb, Ross and I are a bit like you and Rick, only switched. I keep emails as short as possible without being brusque, and Ross likes to add all sorts of homey words and long explanations. We all get SO many emails everyday - why make the recipient suffer through more sentences than necessary?

Where I do fall short is in conversation. I'm trying hard to cut out "Well, I think" and "It's just my opinion, but" and "Wouldn't you say?" Men don't use language like that, and I don't want to either.

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Lovely Readers, what do you think about this app? Would you consider using it? Why or why not? Do you think women apologise too much? Please tell us in the comments!


  1. This app doesn't appeal to me because I don't see a problem with being "softer" or "thoughtful" or "considerate" or whatever word one might choose to attach to those less-that-brusque messages. Does one have to be brusque to be businesslike?
    I truly don't see the softer message/comments as diminishing; rather, they seem to me to be a politeness that I hope I would be gracious enough to use if I were sending a written note or letter or if I were speaking to someone in person.

  2. JUST wanted to say, SO SORRY!!! ;) I do agree with Hallie, Hank, Lucy, AND especially Joan. I'm guilty of all of the above, trying to be somewhat "soft" and light-hearted, especially when I have the time to do so. Nope, I wouldn't likely use that app, but I can see how it may prove useful at times. xo

  3. Email is a strange animal. What can begin as formal business correspondence--"Dear Person, Thank you for your inquiry"--undergoes a change after a few exchanges and devolves into "I can do that, you betcha!!!!" So weird.

    I think "sorry" is meant to avoid hurting people's feelings. You're not sorry about the comment, you are sorry about the effect of the comment. And oh yeah, men don't think like that.

  4. I think there's a difference between "softer" and "thoughtful" and, on the other hand, being self-diminishing.

  5. The term that's coming to my mind as I read this is "disagree agreeably" - it's something I thought a lot about raising children, teaching and working especially with parents, and managing people who reported to me in high tech. A piece of this is that if you want people to 'hear' your point, then they have to feel as if you are listening to theirs. Seems like you never see this in today's political theatre, but in everyday life it's useful.

    And can I just say nothing makes me more furious than when someone says to me: I'm sorry that you feel like that. That's a pretty sorry sorry.

  6. Exactly, exactly Susan. Women sometimes forget that. I had a gy say to me about Jane Ryland--you know, she apologizes a lot. I was shocked. It was truly thought-provoking. And then I realized, yeah, she does. But she;s asking difficult and unpleasant questions, to victims, maybe, and she's trying to be careful and thoughtful.

    And Ramona, I always have to stop my self from ending business letters with xo.


    But I don't like Sincerely, or All best, or Best. I just can't come up with a good --what do you call those? Opposite of salutation.

  7. Working in software, I had/have a lot of male co-workers. One day, one of them said, "You never say good morning or ask what's up. You just launch into what you want." And it was true. So I made a point of asking after people before presenting my needs/requests. Is that demeaning or thoughtful? I noticed the guy who pointed it out to me always started with some variation of "how's it going?" So I'd say thoughtful.

    I try to be thoughtful. As Ramona points out, that can be difficult in email especially if you're trying to be direct. I had another coworker who told me point blank that he never read emails that extended past the preview window (about five lines), so if I buried my point in the fifth paragraph, he'd never read it. So I started keeping my emails very brief.

    And someone else complained I was too abrupt. You can't win.

    The meme that really gets me riled is the little girl, clearly yelling at the other child (often a boy) who is back into a corner, alarmed look on his face. The caption reads, "I wish every girl who was told she was bossy was told she had leadership skills." But the truth is that bossiness and leadership skills are not the same. I've had some bossy "leaders" - men and women - I wouldn't follow into the bathroom if I was about to wet my pants.

  8. I love Chrome (sorry/not sorry...right?), but I can't see using this app.

    Do I apologize/soften/fudge too much? Guilty as charged. Funny that this post shows up on a tic I've been consciously fighting to correct. Once again, the Reds win by showing me I'm not alone!

  9. I wouldn't use the app because I don't use any apps. I don't believe it is a "softening" of e-mails. It is merely a question of being polite. I never text. I think it shows a lack of respect and common courtesy. Why not simply call the person or go to speak to him or her in person? That's what I do. I also always look someone in the eye when I'm speaking with him or her. It is a matter of being polite. With the plethora of technology available nowadays, people have forgotten how to communicate with another. It's disheartening to see that personal interaction on so many levels has been lost. On a side note, although some texts are long, in the push to keep messages short people have forgotten how to write a sentence. I'm overwhelmed by all the abbreviations, most of which I have no idea what they are.

  10. Thanks, Cyndi! (Exclamation point used consciously.)

  11. Fascinating! This is an issue I've only recently been making myself consciously think about. Being aware of it has caused me to backspace a bit more than I normally would, so I guess I've been guilty of using the self-deprecating tricks more than I needed to.

    It's a fine line, isn't it, between the drill sergeant barking commands and Julia's wet dishrag? A little to the hard line makes you sound abrupt, but then you're one smiley face from looking like a wimp or a doormat. You can't win.

  12. And along the lines of what Karen said, apparently proper punctuation in text messages is now considered...abrupt? Rude? Like she said, you can't win!

  13. Sometimes I think to myself — what would Madeleine Albright do? (Or write?) (And no, I'm not kidding. I'm constantly asking myself what Ms. Albright would do.)

  14. I love this discussion ... Oh, and that right there is one of my quirks, the ellipses. I use it a lot in messages, and I've lately decided is has to go. It's so weak -- like I don't really stand behind whatever it is I'm saying, you know? (That rhetorical question; what's that? Is it a way to be conversational, inviting the other person in; or does it seem weak? Like I need outside acceptance? Huh.)

    Anyhow ... ellipses = wishy washy. So I'm working on that. Period! Exclamation point! :-)

  15. Wait, I love ellipses! Do you really think they're wishy washy? Must ponder.... (See what I did there?)

  16. Madeline Albright is a perfect role model! (I do that with JAckie Kennedy about food. But that's another blog.)

    Ramona had a good post on FB the other day about dashes and ellipses. I mediately went to my manuscript and took out hundreds--maybe not hundreds, but many--dashes. If let to my own devices, I'd use them way too much. I think it comes form TV writing, where punctuation doesn't matter.

    Yeah, ellipses. t seems like they're a good thing, suspenseful, pensive, uncertain.. But they are weak. But that's the point of them, right?

    Lisa I just read your post again, and I am still laughing.

  17. CYndi, I;ve never heard that. How does the "punctuation is mean" theory work?

    Daniella, once I actually gave up, and just googled IRL. NO idea. ANd IIRC.

  18. I'm still getting over Susan's comment about sending emails in her mid twenties. :)

    And yes, Madeleine Albright is a goddess.

  19. Here you go, Hank - punctuation in a text message is rude! It was on NPR, so it must be true, right?

    You Should Watch the Way You Punctuate Your Text Messages - Period". (Note they use a dash!)

  20. Hah! I love ellipses too, not to mention m-dashes. I need to find Ramona's post.

    Ellipses for pondering -- totally legit -- but I'm an ellipses abuser. Sometimes my messages read like I don't know how to form a proper declarative thought or sentence. They're the written equivalent of petering out into unintelligible mumbles all the time. But, come to think of it, I'm kind of a mumbler in real life too ...

  21. I am the em dash queen, alas.

    Madeleine Albright was in Cincinnati a few years ago, giving a talk as part of a subscription series. She took questions from the audience, and one of the four or five she answered was MY question! (All caps, and an exclamation point, for emphasis, natch.) Very exciting.

    In case you were wondering, the question had to do with her advice to a young woman (my daughter) who had majored in engineering and was working in the energy field. She wants to affect policy, and did Mrs. Albright advise her to get a Masters in Policy, or a law degree?

    She said either would work, and that she happens to be prejudiced in favor of lawyers, since a couple family members (daughters? sons-in-law? I can't remember now) have law degrees.

    FYI, my daughter still hasn't made up her mind, but she's affected policy in other ways, including leadership in energy policy groups and speeches thereto.

  22. Congrats on your daughter Karen! I think part of the problem is there is no body language to help decipher an email. You can have a pleasant, sympathetic look in person as you say no that would not come across in an email.

    Daniella, I've gotten so I dislike phone calls unless from certain close family etc, but that's another blog post. I end up thinking something must be terribly wrong...

  23. My ears were burning.

    Here's my theory about ellipses. You know those people whose vocal inflection rises at the end of a sentence? So that everything they say sounds like a question? Even when they are making statements? That is so annoying?

    That's how I "hear" ellipses. Once in a while, fine. All the time, I want to jab a pencil in my ear.

    Dashes are the same thing. If you consider a dash as signalling an interruption, and you overuse them, your scenes are full of rude people interrupting one another.

    Thank you for the (uninvited) opportunity to share a gigantic dialogue annoyance.

  24. I really have to work on my proofreading. There are so many typos in my comment above. Sigh. xooxo
    I know it's "immediately."

    Ramona, how about a construction like this:
    She was a perfectly nice person--if you forgot about that one time--and I couldn't wait to see her.

    (not the words, just the construction.)

  25. Works for me, Hank. The purpose of the dash is to interject a separate idea that's related to the sentence. Do it too many times in a row, though, and it would be so choppy--but you know that.

    The dashes and ellipses I mentioned as crazy-making are mostly at the end of sentences. But too many interjections and your reader's brain will be doing back flips to keep up.

  26. Ooh, I love em dashes and ellipses, so think I'm probably in big trouble... :-) EMOTICON CAPS!!

    Seriously, this is so interesting. And I really want to know the answer to Hank's question earlier-- (Em dash!)--does anyone have a better idea for a friendly email closing, other than, "sincerely" or "best" or "all best"? All utterly meaningless and totally blah. "Yours truly" sound terribly old fashioned... (ellipses...) But it's not really appropriate to hug and kiss everyone.


  27. I heart ellipses... Oh my yes I do.

  28. Interesting: Julia said "We all get SO many emails everyday - why make the recipient suffer through more sentences than necessary?"

    That's my downfall. I LIKE (all caps!) sentences and don't suffer when I read them as long as there aren't too many and they stay somewhat on topic. Sentences sound like people. Have you noticed, speaking of apps, that Siri speaks in sentences and is rather too polite, occasionally gushy and therefore suspiciously insincere? LOL.

    Deborah, how about this as a closing for a letter (what's a 'letter' ?some young person is muttering right now):

    "With the greatest of felicitations and best wishes for your continued good health and prosperity, I remain yours faithfully..." or,

  29. Lucy, I always feel it's more personal to call someone or go speak to him or her in person. If someone leaves me a message, I always return the call. Of course, there are times when one must send an e-mail. Again, I always respond because it is common courtesy. Either way, I think "softening" is necessary to be polite. One must say hello and ask how the other person is doing. One simply can't simply launch into what "I need." What also is lacking a lot of time is that most people don't say "thank you" anymore. I find this shocking. I was always taught to say thank you, especially if someone helped me or did something for me. I know that this is a little off topic, but it's related.

  30. Susan Shea, that cracked me up. Expect an email with suitable closing...

  31. I love this conversation. I like the point Susan made at the top of the comments, that the issue is not letting thoughtful cross the line into self-diminishing. I know that I consciously make written communications more and less facilitating (i.e., female) depending on context—by that I mean both purpose and audience. I will self-censor all those facilitating/diminishing words in an email to a client (or to my editor, my goodness!), unless I know I can use them to my advantage. I will admit to sometimes enjoying using them deliberately when communicating something negative—doing so makes me feel I'm being really cutting, but makes my message more tame.

    But in general, I think it's a great idea to be more aware of what we're doing. We're women, we've been immersed in the "be facilitating not direct" approach (generally speaking), so by all means, let's use that as a tool in our arsenal. Simply be conscious of it. (I'll tell you, it helps having an editor who loathes the word "just," because now I see and question it every time I type it.)

  32. Debs, how about "Cheers"? I use that one all the time.

  33. Definitely what Tammy and Susan said. It is hard to convey nuance in an e-mail (worse in a text) and I'm guilty of the smiley face, LOL, etc.... We women have such a horror of giving offence.

  34. Lisa and all, I like "Cheers" myself at the end of a missive and am also not in any way opposed to "Yours sincerely." It's cool and retro. It's what Eleanor Roosevelt used.

  35. Oh, Hank -- now I know why you don't eat nachos -- Jackie NEVER would!

  36. Yikes! Just recently someone told me I was too brusque. I'm with Rhys--I'd like to just say what I have to say and move along. Oh, oops, sorry, I mean, gosh not to sound like rhys is brusque, oh sorry Rhys, ummmm..

  37. I probably won't try the app, because I think I tend to err toward brusqueness rather than apology in emails. In my editing job I'm known as someone who speaks her mind—hopefully with kindness and courtesy, but not with apology.

    In my writing, though, I have noticed that "just" (along with "really" and "actually") is one of the words I overuse without noticing—mostly in dialogue, which suggests I probably overuse it in my own speech as well. I have to do a search for "just" in every finished manuscript and cut down the instances by about three-quarters.

  38. I'm constantly going back to delete extra smiley faces from my emails. I cannot seem to help myself while typing... :)