This morning, I caught myself typing “Sorry if” on a thread where it was clear that some people in my team didn’t understand what I had intended. I was able to catch myself doing it before I hit the publish button, but I’m definitely not always to prevent myself from using “if” after “sorry”.
Why is using “if” a problem?
I see two major challenges with using “if” after “sorry”. The first one is that it doesn’t really admit your part in it. Are you really sorry about something if you need to soften it straight away by adding “if” after it? Even if you are, is “if” conveying that to the people you work with or the ones you’re apologising to?
The second one is that it puts the onus of the error with the other person. When I say “sorry if that wasn’t clear to you”, I’m not entirely committing to it not being clear. I’m not fully accepting that the other person wasn’t able to understand my writing. So, since I’m not fully committing, did I really make the mistake? Or am I hinting at their lack of ability to understand what I’m saying (or trying to say)?
As a result, using “if” after “sorry” will create an environment where apologising is disingenuous behaviour. Especially if you’re using this towards people who report to you, it’ll discourage them to reach out to you for clarification. It’ll encourage them to read between the lines. Ultimately, it will contribute to a context of distrust.
And the word isn’t necessary. Moving from “sorry if that wasn’t clear to you” to “sorry that it wasn’t clear to you” only changes a few words, but completely alters the message. In using the second wording, I take ownership of not being clear. It invites my team members to reach out to me if I’m not being clear because they don’t have to worry that I’ll blame them for the communication. Ultimately, it’ll help nurture a trusting relationship.