Surprising Reaction to “Sorry to Bother You”

When I teach business writing classes, I often ask attendees about their pet peeves as readers. These are things that slow them down or drive them nuts as readers. The other day I heard a pet peeve for the first time, from a bank employee I will call Kay. I think her pet peeve is worth passing on.

Kay said something like this:

"It drives me nuts that people start their emails with 'Sorry to bother you, but . . . ' or 'I don't mean to be a pain, but . . . ' The things they are asking me to do are MY JOB. Why should they be sorry to ask me to do my job? I am happy to do it. It is no bother at all."

Are you surprised, as I was? I would never have thought "Sorry to bother you" could elicit a negative reaction. But if Kay reads it regularly, I can understand how the remark could irritate her. After all, why should people be sorry to ask others to do something that is part of their jobs?

I believe we write or say "Sorry to bother you" to be polite. We do not want to create extra work for someone. But if it is the person's job, it's not extra work–it is simply their work.

Below are polite alternatives to "Sorry to bother you." They would come after "Hi Kay" or a similar email greeting.

  • I would appreciate your expertise.
  • There is a task I need to ask you to do. . . .
  • I need _______ [figures, photos, etc.] for the Johnston proposal. Can you get them for me please?
  • Do you have time today to find a _______ [report, piece of data, etc.] for me?
  • I have a new assignment that I would be grateful for your help with.
  • Can you _______ [do something] as soon as possible? Suddenly the client is asking for it.  
  • I need the _______ by tomorrow. Can you please handle this for me?

Can you relate to Kay's comment? And what do you think of my replacements for "Sorry to bother you"? I welcome your thoughts.

Lynn
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8 COMMENTS

  1. Great stuff as usual! I like your alternatives, too.

    I do think something like ‘sorry to bother you..’ is ok on the 2nd go-round, though. For example, if I ask someone for something, and they get back to me with info, but I find there is some additional info that I need that they didn’t address in their original response, THEN it is fair to use the ‘sorry for bothering’, because at that point you may actually be a bother! Even then, I will always ask the clarifying question in the first sentence and close the email with the ‘sorry to bother…’

  2. I’m sorry to make you read another comment on this topic, but…

    That opening is partly joke, but I think it also makes a point. Does it preset your mind to think the message will have a negative impact on you? That’s what the opening described by Kay does to me – I tend to go into a defensive mode when I read (or hear) that as the opening. I’m looking for any reason to delete the email without reading it all the way through. My mind (admittedly much more sarcastic than most) silently responds with, “Well then, don’t bother me; that way neither of us will be sorry.” It then creates a barrier for the message in the email. This is especially true if I do not have a close working relationship with the author.

    I like all of your alternatives, Lynn. I think they provide openings for the rest of the message, which is what the author needs to do.

  3. Hello, McClain. I appreciate your excellent example of where “Sorry to bother you” fits. Both the situation and the place in the message that you suggest are fine suggestions.

    I apologize for my slow reply to your helpful comment. For a few days I was working where it is inconvenient to get on the Internet.

    Lynn

  4. Hi, Randy. Because I saw that the comment was from you, I did not react negatively to your “I’m sorry to make you read” opening, but it is a good example and a great point.

    Like you, I too might think “Then don’t bother me!” when the moment was right–or wrong.

    I appreciate your sharing insights into what may be behind Kay’s irritation. Very interesting!

    Lynn

  5. People say “sorry” too often as a matter of course. It’s usually just a filler term of politesse and rarely a true expression of sorrow. For example, someone at work the other day said she was “sorry” about someone else’s error. I asked her, “What are you sorry for? It’s not your fault.” She was taken aback, and she should have been. I should have realized that she was not literally sorry.

  6. Hi, Diane. When my elderly father would tell me about something that was going wrong for him, I used to say “I’m sorry.” He would respond, “Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything.”

    I have learned to say instead “I am sorry to hear that.” It seems to work more effectively.

    Lynn

  7. Hi!

    May I ask, how do you end the letter like, “After everything I’ve asked you to do (to assist me)… I hope didn’t give you much burden.” I mean, that’s how I feel… how do I write that before I close my letter? I just want her to know that I consider her time and effort as much as I hope I can get what I need. But I can’t get too emotional in a letter, you know. So I don’t know… I feel guilty asking our bookkeeper from one request to another, because some of the requests are not usually their “routine” job. 🙁

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