Plague Of Apologies: Don’t Ban ‘Sorry’ Just Use It With Sincerity (Here’s How)
While headlines demanding women stop saying "sorry" abound, is there room for super sincere apologies? A serial over-apologizer has to wonder.
Want to see the ridiculous things I've apologized for recently? Here are just a few: Being served the wrong thing at a restaurant; declining an unwanted sexual advance; requesting an overdue invoice be paid; knocking a book from my bedside table and saying sorry...to the book.
So how TF did I get here? I’ll get to that. But before I chronicle my descent into a cringing penitent wreck, let’s take a moment to acknowledge how important a sincere apology can be. A few examples:
- When a Harvard study revealed a significant percentage of Airbnb hosts were applying racial biases when accepting tenants, the company CEO Brian Chesky issued a public apology, followed by the release of a new non-discrimination policy.
- US congress has, on periodic occasions, apologized to African-Americans, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian people for racism and horrific wrongs made in the name of government; symbolic statements that go some way in acknowledging and accepting responsibility for atrocities.
- When Kanye West publicly expressed remorse for bogarting Taylor Swift’s VMAs win, it injected an adrenaline shot of relatable humanity into the arms-length-demigod personal brand the media had cultivated.
You see, an apology can be a powerful symbol and its value shouldn’t be undermined. And then there’s me; just throwing them out like dropped Tic Tacs. To be fair those, those fuckers are hard to get out of the box.
Only recently, my partner casually observed that I had a tendency to apologize at an uncommonly high frequency and for the most arbitrary, inoffensive of matters. My immediate recourse was to apologize for over-apologizing.
That was the moment of grim self-awareness in which I realized I'd reached the point of gross compulsion. For me, there’s a combination of factors that come into play, when discussing apologizing.
Somewhere along the line, my perceptions of niceness and politeness metastasized into unnecessarily accepting blame for all manner of wack shit.
I used to be a chronic confrontation dodger (“uh okay I’ll do your job for you," etc.) and it is that anything-to-avoid-conflict attitude that will leave you ripe for knee-jerk apologizing and accepting ownership of wrongdoing—even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
Have you ever caught yourself saying “sorry” where you should be saying “excuse me” e.g. when asking someone to please get out of your allocated seat at a concert? Yeah, me too!
I’m a woman
Yeah women apologize more. "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" was written by Elton John who, might I point out, is a man. Case closed! But, also, science says it’s so.
A 2010 report in Psychological Science revealed that compared with men, “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior” and are therefore more likely to drop sorry bombs. So it turns out that through my apology surplus, I’ve actually been spooning fuel onto the female confidence gap. Oh, cool...I’m contributing to my nightmare.
In psychologist Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? she says that over-apologizing (a primarily female behavior) is driven by low self-esteem, an excessive wish to please or a fear of disapproval. Okay firstly, can I just say: Get out of my head, Harriet Lerner!
As a long-time sufferer of anxiety, catastrophizing and obsessive thinking are my specialty, and being wound up in fear is a natural precursor to deflated self-esteem and confidence. If you’re familiar with this old song, you’re probably also familiar with the bad habit of operating under the assumption that you are always the person in the wrong.
And you more than likely will misguidedly take responsibility for the smallest infringements both at work and in your personal life. That is not good.
But like any gross compulsion, you just need to first acknowledge and then break the habit. Here’s how:
Consciously change your language. Swap your go-to apologetic tics with alternatives that don’t come with the implication that you’re somehow to blame. Need to navigate a crowd? Instead of saying “Sorry I need to get past” say “excuse me."
If you don’t understand something at work, don’t go for the usual “sorry, I don’t understand." Say “Can you break that down in layman’s terms?” Start there.
Back it up
Hear that beeping? That’s the sound of the contrition truck backing up, baby. I got into the habit of pulling myself up on unnecessary apologies and actually reneging out loud.
I’d say something like “Sorry, I haven’t decided what to order yet…. Actually, I’m not sorry at all. I just need two more minutes and that’s A-OK!” Sure, i sounded a little like an unhinged person with no internal monologue, but it did help crush the habit.
Be brave and be honest
Don’t lean on the apology-crutch for avoiding confrontation, because I promise you that being agreeable is not better than being honest (except when it comes to your mother-in-law. Trust me on that one, fam.)
Learn how to approach conflict face-on by talking to friends who are good at it, watching TED Talks on the topic or reading articles with practical tips. It will make your life better and infinitely less stressful in the long term.
Relearn the true value of saying sorry
The significance of an apology loses all its weight once you get to the point where you’re dropping a "sorry" into every third sentence. When you use it, you need to make it count or the potency and sincerity of your words become increasingly diminished.
Remind yourself of that the next time you walk into a pole and ask it for forgiveness.
Look, we can’t all be an unapologetic bitch like HRH Madonna, but you shouldn’t go through life in a swarm of excess apologies. And if you are? Well, I’m sorry my friend but it’s time to move on. Actually, I’m not sorry. Because you really do deserve it.
Words: Suz Tucker
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch