Written by Coco Khan
From work emails to group chats, four little words are having a big impact on our lives, says self-confessed people-pleaser Coco Khan.
They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it. So here goes. I have a problem best summarised in four little words: “No worries if not.”
The ultimate motto of the chronic people pleaser, ‘no worries if not’ has firmly established itself in today’s lexicon – though I’m still not sure when it wormed its way into mine. I expect that it happened unconsciously, absorbed from someone else’s email; that I was seduced by its easy-breezy, nonchalant attitude. Because a ‘no worries if not’ woman cannot cause offence. She isn’t pushy or frazzled; she’s positivity personified. She gives people an out, knowing that they might otherwise find it hard to say no.
I first twigged that I might have a problem back in 2019, when I saw a tweet that had gone viral from journalist Marianne Eloise. She noticed how frequently she had typed the phrase during an email-filled day, and in frustration fired off a self-deprecating tweet reading, ‘no!! worries!!! if!!!!!!!! not!!!!!!!!’. Like Batman and the bat-signal over Gotham, the pushovers of the world recognised it immediately – women especially, judging by the online comments.
Fast forward eight months and Britain was in lockdown. We were suddenly reliant on written channels to communicate with our loved ones, often via the same apps we used for work, such as Zoom and WhatsApp, and this devious nugget of workspeak rapidly bled into every part of our lives. It was the perfect quip for such times, recognising everyone’s varying comfort levels with socialising, going out, getting our nails done or disinfecting the groceries.
In May last year, The New Yorker ran a range of cartoons riffing on the phrase, confirming what I had begun to suspect – that what started as a mantra had grown into a malaise. No longer the preserve of minor work emails about picking up a card from M&S for Sue in HR (“and some Percy Pigs! But no worries if not!”), it had become a staple part of my communication, rearing its timid head in even crucial messages. “No worries if not!” I write on the email chasing a payment that I genuinely need – a barefaced lie because I will worry, every hour, until the money comes in.
Experts believe that ‘no worries if not’ is just one of many phrases we use to soften our asks. We mitigate our expertise and our intellect with ‘second-guessing phrases’ (think: “I might be wrong but…” or “Sorry if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick about this…”), offering people opt-outs to commitments they shouldn’t opt out of. We soften our requests even when we need them strong.
This kind of hedging is, according to women’s leadership coach Sally Helgesen, a habit that has spread like a contagion: “When we’re in a culture where people are routinely apologising multiple times for things they have no control over, we hear that and we just start repeating it.”
So why do we do it, and why do women seemingly do it more than men? If we think of ‘no worries if not’ as the first cousin of ‘sorry’, a good place to start is with Karina Schumann, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. In her landmark study, Why Women Apologize More Than Men, she concluded that men are just as willing to do so as women – they just don’t think they’ve done as many things wrong. Women, forever so prone to self-critique, perceive our own trespasses acutely, and therefore we offer up a lot more sorrys.
Dr Lucy Ryan, founder of Mindspring and author of Lunchtime Learning For Leaders, agrees that many girls are socialised this way. “Brought up since birth to make ourselves smaller, lesser and more passive than our male counterparts, the supposed ‘fairer sex’ is used to playing it small,” she says. She points to research that says women apologise more than men not because we do more wrong, but because we are trained to be more concerned with the emotional experiences of others and with promoting harmony.
“Think about it – you bump into someone on the pavement and leap out of the way with a ‘sorry’. You start your emails with ‘Sorry for not getting back to you sooner,’ and your contributions at a business meeting are frequently peppered with language such as, ‘It’s probably just me who doesn’t get this,’” she explains.
But saying sorry also doesn’t always promote harmony. Perhaps it could if we all cared the same amount about each other, but not in the uneven playing field of working life, where power, fairness and even kindness are not distributed equally. Instead, unnecessarily apologetic or passive language can lead to confusion over how important something is to you, especially over texts and emails, which are naturally more ambiguous.
“‘Sorry syndrome’ can undermine your self-confidence and the confidence of others in you,” says Dr Ryan, noting how ‘don’t worry about little old me’ phrases and over-apologising can make it seem as if you lack the ability to complete the necessary task.
As for non-working relationships, this kind of approach can easily lead to anguish and resentment – at least in my experience. “No worries if not,” I say to a friend when checking whether our plan is still happening (a plan I really want to happen). “No worries if not,” I say to my boyfriend, asking if he can take the cat to the vet instead because I’m a hair’s breadth away from burnout. Something clearly needs to change. But how to liberate myself from this pernicious little phrase?
“There are four simple ways to counteract it,” explains Dr Ryan. Step one: awareness. “Notice how much you undermine or minimise what you’re asking for.” Two: “Own your space! Uncross your arms and your legs and learn to take up more room.” Three: “Remove all the ‘filler’ words from your vocabulary: like, kind of, sort of.” And finally, the biggie: “When someone next compliments you, don’t negate it. Just say thank you!”
I, for one, accept the challenge, and I hope that you will too. People pleasers of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our stressful email chains.
Take back control — phrases that are worth phasing out
“I KNOW YOU MUST BE TERRIBLY BUSY…”
REPLACE WITH: “I WOULD LIKE YOU TO…”
Everyone is busy – that’s a given. Instead of making it seem like the person receiving your message would be doing you a favour by doing what you’re asking them to, try making your request directly and politely.
“SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, BUT…”
REPLACE WITH: “GREAT TO BE CONNECTED”
By apologising, you’re implying that you’ve become a nuisance, creating a negative feeling from the off. Try an upbeat note instead. Or, if you’re following up with someone, showing gratitude never fails.
“I WAS JUST WONDERING…”
REPLACE WITH: “IT MIGHT NOT WORK, BUT…”
You were hired because you have the talent necessary for the job, so own it! Instead of offering your thoughts so the recipient offers theirs, show that you’re genuinely keen to hear their perspective.
“NO WORRIES IF NOT”
REPLACE WITH: “LET ME KNOW IF THIS IS POSSIBLE”
When we say ‘no worries if not’, we are implying that leaving the offer is as good as taking it when we really want the recipient to take it. Instead, give a prompt that will encourage them to give an affirmative response.
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