Sorry vs. Excuse Me

The following may constitute a feminist rant. Since most of you know me personally, you know I rarely go on these so bear with me1.

Last week one of my best friends from high school texted a couple of us that some guy on the T elbowed her in the head on the way to work, and she said “I’m sorry” to him.

I actually laughed when I first read this, but then we got into a discussion about being assertive in the workplace2, and I started giving the whole thing more thought3.

At some point that afternoon, with this conversation still ongoing and therefore fresh in my mind, I started noticing how many times I say “I’m sorry” in a day. This observation isn’t anything revolutionary. There are many articles out there about women’s apologizing a lot. It isn’t even a new personal revelation. In fact last year a good friend of mine and I challenged each other to stop saying “I’m sorry” to each other4 so much. I’m pretty sure I failed within a few hours. I think we were aiming for a month, and I couldn’t even get through one evening.

What was new was that I started making a mental note of what my coworkers were saying. Here are some of my observations:

  • One of the times I most often say “Sorry” is if I’m walking in a narrow aisle or go around a corner and have to maneuver around a coworker.
  • Every time5 I have passed a man in this situation he says “Excuse me.”
  • The only time so far6 I’ve passed a woman she also said “Sorry.”
  • When I send an email to which I expect to receive an “I’m sorry” from any coworker, I hesitate to send it.
  • When I do receive an e-mail saying “I’m sorry” I usually think it’s an unnecessary apology, and I also feel uncomfortable and want to clarify that I was not blaming them for anything.
  • A friend of mine at work who organized a training I was attending said “I’m sorry” to all the attendees about ten times in 30 minutes for things completely out of her control7. I kept telling her she had nothing to apologize for.
  • This is a conversation I have with my mom at least once a day:
    • Mom: I am some negative emotion.
    • Tammy: I’m sorry.
    • Mom: Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything.
    • Tammy: But I’m sad that you feel this negative emotion. I am sorry you feel it. I know it’s not my fault. But I don’t want you to feel it.
    • Mom: Ok ok.
      This has gone both ways, we usually each play each role once a day. So I guess we have this conversation at least twice a day.

 As I made these observations I talked8 to my friends to get their thoughts. First I texted my go to linguistics discussion friend and asked him to help me discern a difference, if any, between sorry and excuse me in the situation I described above. His opinion was that they were just different levels of formality and both admitted fault in their own way. I talked to the boyfriend9 about it later but honestly can’t remember what he said. Cause I’m terrible. And we actually talked in person so I can’t go check my texts for direct quotes. I clearly need to be recording all our potential blog-worthy conversations. Anyway, I also asked the girls that started all of this what they thought of it. One said that in that context they mean the same thing for her, but that maybe I’m sorry subconsciously admits more culpability. Maybe it’s something with the languages. Maybe in Hebrew there is more implication of guilt in the phase “I’m sorry” than in “excuse me” so that when I learned the two in English I subconsciously imprinted that distinction on the English phrases10. I’d honestly love to hear what you guys think? Is there any difference between “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry”?

Regardless, based on the rest of my observations, my new goal is to replace “I’m sorry” with “Excuse me.” I’ll just start with the one specific situation described and see how it unfolds into my life. This is for many reasons and not just a feminist one11. Firstly, if it is in fact a formality difference, then the workplace is a more formal one so I should adopt a more formal language that might help me act more professional in general12. Secondly, and this is really the main one, after observing how uncomfortable I feel with hearing “I’m sorry” I don’t really want to say that to other people in these contexts. Thirdly, maybe if I adopt this habit in one place, it’ll serve as a baby step towards my bigger goal of saying “I’m sorry” less. Finally, I have often felt that when I overuse the phrase “I’m sorry” it makes the times I’m actually sorry much less meaningful. But I would like those that I’m apologizing to to know that I’m genuinely sorry and not just saying something out of habit or some formality I think I have to follow.

So yeah. That’s my potentially feminist rant13.


  1. The only reason I remember it’s bear with me and not bare with me is because I read once that bare with me would be “get naked with me” and that stuck!
  2. And in life in general…
  3. This conversation actually hit on several interesting topics that I will slowly cover over the next few Wednesday posts.
  4. Just to each other!
  5. This is truly every time I have observed so far. I am by no means claiming that all men say this every time.
  6. Still working as an engineer, still surrounded by men, I feel that my observation on this front is seriously lacking. Please feel free to provide your own observations if you work with more women and have any observation you would like to share.
  7. Like lack of proper heating in the only room that was available for the training.
  8. Mostly texted cause I was at work and most of my friends are far away.
  9. He’s the only guy I know who says “I’m sorry” as much as if not more so than me by the way. We have also challenged each other to stop. I can’t! But I am going to try.
  10. By the way I can think of at least one more way to say I’m sorry in Hebrew than in English. Oh Hebrew/English speakers in my life. Help me out here!
  11. In fact, I’d say feminism is towards the bottom of my list of reasons. As I’m still not entirely sure whether or not this is at all a feminist rant.
  12. Not that I’m not professional, but you know, maybe small mannerisms could be better.
  13. How do I end these things anyway?!

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