Stop Saying Sorry and Say What You Mean

Being forward is the new black, and losing the unnecessary apologies is the coolest thing since sliced bread.

By this, we mean the business landscape has changed and with it, so has communication. We have entered a new phase, one that pushes for more active and forward language – again. Why again? Because using passive language used to be seen as “weak”, this changed and it became “polite”, and now that’s all changing again. The latest take on passive language is that it’s seen as both weak and a waste of time. Yikes! Let’s get to work, break down some of the “hows” to the passive habits we have and kick’em to the curb.

How Did Passive Language Become the Norm?

In 1946, George Orwell said “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” This notion quickly spread amongst the business landscape and carried on for many generations. As women, BIPOC, disabled people, (out) LGBTQAI+ and younger people began entering the workforce, passive language started to become more prevalent. Note: this is not the fault of people who have been marginalized for years, quite the opposite. Entering the working world as anyone other than a white cis-hetero male has always meant for more scrutiny (to say it very lightly) and has clearly pushed a culture of “walking on eggshells” for many. 

The Patriarchy Sucks For Everyone

The way our patriarchal society has shaped many things is quite literally a hindrance for anyone to live authentically.

I (the editorial writer of this blog) have more than plenty of personal and professional experience with feeling forced to walk on eggshells and act inauthentically. My first big gig when I moved to NYC (many years and many careers ago) was as an Assistant Producer for a large animation and VFX house. I worked under a white cis-hetero man who I think watched “The Devil Wears Prada” one too many times and related to Streep’s character in all the worst ways. He was constantly on me about many things, without actually attempting to teach me or guide me in any way. Just childish, and frankly bizarre, anger at every turn.

One of those things was about my passive language in emails and phone calls with “big wigs” in the ad industry. Our department would often have people reach out to us with last-minute and low-budget projects. I was compassionate to their situation and said we’d work to see if we could find a spot in the schedule. I got reamed for it. The next time someone reached out, I did what my boss told me to and firmly and professionally explained we couldn’t take last-minute projects anymore. That email almost got me fired, he was furious with me. He couldn’t believe I turned down one of the big wigs from a huge agency as if I would have a clue this person was any different than the last.

He showed me the email that big wig sent to him which stated that he needed to “check his desk girl” and threatened to never do business with us again. Sorry, was this 1950? Nope, this was 2007. So, I went back to being a doormat, using passive language, and being afraid to put my foot down about a single thing in that role. I let myself get walked alllll over because that felt safer than losing my job while living in NYC.

That’s just one example of how passive language can become deeply ingrained in someone. I’ve had colleagues who one could assume would be firm and forward in their language but, in reality, they apologize for everything. It never takes long to discover why, ie: “I started here when I was so young, everyone hazed me so hard, and even though I’m 40 now I’m still treated like everyone’s little brother and not their equal.” I’ve heard this or sentiments like this so many times in my adult life.

Terrible things like racism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so much more will almost always play a factor in how we’ve formed our communication skills and habits. So, please be kind with yourself while learning these new habits.

How To Ditch Passive Language

Like, well – all things…you can’t wave a magic wand and remove all the set patterns in your brain that make you use passive language. However, you can re-route those neuro paths with new habits, and that’s what we’re here to help with! We’re certainly not trying to downplay how hard it can be to rework habits formed while in survival mode, only to be a guide away from them.

Sorry, But Stop Saying Sorry

Whether you’re actually using words like “sorry” and “apologize” or not, there are many other ways of sounding apologetic in text or conversation. Even if the issue at hand is in regards to a mistake you’ve made, unless it REALLY garners an apology, leave it out. Move away from “sorry” and toward “thank you.” For example, as opposed to apologizing and over-explaining every detail of how the mistake was made, just thank them for catching the mistake and do what’s needed to move forward. Below is an example:

  • Ditch Passive language like this: “Oh I’m so sorry, I was planning on going over that again later, I should have caught that” 
  • Embrace Active language like this: “That’s a great catch, I’ll fix that right away.” 

A great way to remember this is the triple-A: acknowledge, appreciate, act. You don’t need to be rude or harsh to use active and forward language at all. 

Don’t Ask Permission, State Your Needs

When reaching out about a project, such as getting revisions from a client, just say what you need. Combine the above with this by not apologizing for what you need, either. Another form of this is over-explaining yourself, which is simply not required when you are stating a need. This behavior could likely come from a pattern of being gaslit.

To work out of this, in practice, this can look like the following; 

  • Ditch Passive language like this:
    “If it’s ok, I’d like to leave early on Friday because I need to take my Grandma to the Doctor and she is moving pretty slow these days”
    – “Sorry to pester you, but do you think you will be able to get revisions back to us this week?” 
  • Embrace Active language like this:
    “I will need to leave work early on Friday at 3 pm, thank you”
    – “We will need revisions by XYZ date, thank you”

It’s a win-win for everyone. You save your, and everyone else’s, time and energy by being succinct and to the point.

Own Your Words and Your Intention

Part of the problem with passive language is how often it can be interpreted as passive-aggressive language. Especially as we, now more than ever before, live in a far more digital world where we communicate via text more than we do by voice. Below are a few examples of what to catch and how to replace the passive voice with an active one.

  • Ditch Passive language like this:
    – If someone asks you to do something, don’t say “no problem” – because it shouldn’t be a problem, it’s just part of your job.
    – If you’re tasked with something that requires resources to complete, don’t use phrases like “I think we maybe need”, “what if we tried it with XYZ tool”, and “it might work if we”. 
  • Embrace Active language like this:
    – If someone asks you to do something, say “you got it” or “on it” or “will do” to really own it.
    – If your job requires something you don’t have, state your needs clearly and leave it at that. “I need”, “this tool is required to complete this task”, and “that will work when we”. 

Temporary Discomfort With Big Pay Off

We won’t lie, acting on this advice will be uncomfortable at first, and you might
feel like you’re being rude, but remember that you are not. Nothing about being clear with your needs and intentions in a professional or personal setting is rude no matter how gaslit you’ve been into believing otherwise.

Save yourself the time and emotional labor by embracing active language in your personal and professional life. You got this!

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