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What the military taught me about owning my language around apologies

I recently watched Professor Maja Jovanovic’s Tedx Talk on Apologies and read her Feature Article: Sorry to bother you, but do you say “sorry” too much? What to say instead.

It took me back to a lesson I learned in bootcamp that has stuck with me throughout my career in engineering. This lesson has made me a better engineer and more cognizant person.

It was my first week in bootcamp, one of my fellow recruits bumped into another in the barracks. They both simultaneously said, “I’m sorry,” to each other. Our RDC (Recruit Division Commander) went ballistic.

“I’m saw-ree! What are you sorry for? Do you even know? You are United States Sailors now. You are valuable—you are worthy. You are not saw-ree. If you have done something wrong, you speak an articulate, sincere apology or you keep your mouth shut.”

My RDC in Navy Bootcamp

Now I have omitted/altered some of the more colorful language that was sprinkled in this speech. And after we ALL finished doing the allotted pushups he felt were necessary for the crime, we stood at attention while he went into further detail on why he was so vehement on the subject.

Much like Professor Maja, he felt that female recruits tended to apologize for everything, even just existing. Half the time, they didn’t even know what they were apologizing for. They use it as a filler phrase when they don’t know what to say. Or even worse, a lame cover for bad behavior that they have no intention of fixing, but they feel uttering those words gives them a “get out of jail” card for taking responsibility. He didn’t want to see us subjugate ourselves by constant apologizing, and he was going to break us of the habit.

Don’t get me wrong, it was perfectly acceptable to make a mistake, own it and apologize (and usually suffer the consequences, which meant more pushups).

But an unthinking utterance of “I’m sorry” earned you a chewing out and the workout of your life while you explained what you thought you were sorry for. If you weren’t sorry when you began, you were sorry by the time you were swimming in your own sweat.

Impact on my Career in STEM

But it is something that has stuck with me through out the rest of my life and career. Now, almost 20 years after getting out of the military, I rarely ever just utter the words, “I’m sorry.”

My pet peeves are situations like these (and I think we have all been there at one point or another)

The Insincere Apology

You’re walking through a grocery store or crowd, and someone plows into you while scrolling through their phone or otherwise not paying attention. Without even looking up from what they’re doing, they mumble, “sorry,” and keep going. You can argue that they are trying to use what is considered politeness, but they aren’t really sorry, and have not intention of changing their behavior. This drives me nuts at times. It takes everything in me to keep from shouting back, “You’re not sorry.”

And even worse, there’s people who will use:

“I’m sorry but…

And you know whatever is coming next is about to be offensive. In their mind, they’ve excused their speech by uttering the magical words. Everyone listening knows they’re not sorry—not even a bit.

The “Who is the Humblest of them All” or The Humblebrag

“Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.”

-Serbian Proverb

Professor Maja mentions this scenario, where each woman in the conference gets up and apologizes for being there. Though each is successful and deserving, owning it is somehow shameful. I’m sure there are entire doctoral thesis papers written on this phenomenon, and you can agree or disagree with me on this one. It’s great to be humble—to a point. No one is keeping score of who is the humblest. When I see other women do this, it screams of an underlying desire to be likable. Men might worry about being engaging, compelling or charismatic in their presentations, but not necessarily likable. I wish that we as women could ditch this need to be likable in order to succeed.

My RDC in bootcamp told us once that no one is going to hand us a trophy for being the most craven and humble of them all. We earned our right to be there, not only should we not let anyone shame us—but don’t use language that shames ourselves.

When I am called upon to give a technical presentation or brief on a situation, I don’t apologize for being there. I was summoned because of my expertise. Apologizing or humble bragging doesn’t come across as sincere or competent, it comes across as wishy-washy and unconfident. If I am explaining why I don’t belong, why should anyone else believe I belong?


This one is tough, especially in this crazy year. We’ve all been there when a friend or loved one is telling us about a loss. The phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss,” seems to play on repeat—to the point where it is becoming meaningless. In fact, one of my friends who recently lost a loved one went on a rant wishing people would stop telling her that. I’m not telling you not to say it (I still at times slip up and say it when I get overwhelmed). I think we can do better.

What I try to say instead:

  • I can’t imagine what you’re feeling/going through
  • Are you okay? Do you need help?
  • Do you need someone to talk to?

I understand, sometimes you don’t know the person well enough, and you feel compelled to say something. We’re human, we want to show empathy. But this one is a personal goal of mine. I try to find some other phrase to use. Something that conveys my empathy and support.

The Filler Phrase

I do a lot of mentoring, and I see this in the younger engineers and college students (not just female). They sprinkle, “I’m sorry” into their speech just as often as “Uh” or “Um”. Especially when you’ve asked them a question to which they don’t know the answer. They feel as if they automatically have to apologize.

And I totally get this one—I’ve been there too.

There is enormous pressure at times to appear on top of things, to seem like you have all of the answers. But one of the things that made me incredibly successful as an engineer is not always having the answer, but having the willingness to go the extra mile to find it.

It is okay to not immediately have the answer. A perfectly good response is, “That is a great question, let me get back to you on that.”

Mea Culpa

I’ve now worked over 20 years in the energy industry as a technician, operator or engineer. No one is perfect, and I’ve made many mistakes along the way. It can hurt to admit you made a mistake, but in the world of engineering, when you’re working around high-energy that can seriously hurt or kill people, it is important to find and correct mistakes quickly, and learn from them. When I make a mistake, I own it—but I don’t grovel. There’s no time or place for that. No one cares about how bad I feel that I screwed up, or how I want to crawl under a table and hide. They want to know what I will do to remedy the situation, or prevent it from happening again. When I give my explanation, I make sure it is sincere and well thought out, and I get the job back on track. I can cry in my beer later.

Owning my Place

To say working as a woman in STEM is tough would be a mild understatement. I haven’t always been welcomed with open arms. But as my RDC taught me in the Navy, I am worthy and I belong here. I need to show up without apologies and own my successes—and my mistakes.

About the Author

I pulled up anchor to escape a small town in the Mojave Desert and joined the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program at 18. A diagnosis of MS derailed my dreams of becoming a super-spy. Making limoncello from my lemons, I became an Electrical Engineer instead. Through many twists and turns made my way north to Alaska. I write novels about women in STEM who save the day, and the hot guys who sometimes lend them a hand. I blog about my adventures as a woman in STEM and my struggles with MS. My husband and I are currently working hard to turn 31 acres of Alaska wilderness into an off-grid retreat. My first self-published novella, The Dark Land, a blend of horror, romance and mythical Alaska creatures, is available on Amazon.