How often do you say “sorry”? You might be surprised – try keeping count today. A British survey found adults say “sorry” an average of eight times, and up to 20 times, daily. When I kept count, I hit 32. It seems like a harmless habit at first. Many of us use “sorry” like punctuation, as in “Sorry, did you get my e-mail?”. We say it in place of “excuse me”. It’s like a social lubricant we use to get along, without really meaning it. I didn’t think it was a problem until I came across the Daily Apology Checklist from Sarah Cooper’s new book, How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. After laughing through half the list, I started to feel uncomfortable about how close to home it hit – and how ridiculous the things we apologise for seem to be when they’re written down. It got me thinking: Is it possible to apologise too much?
I found I often said “sorry” because I was afraid of annoying someone, even strangers, such as, such as cashiers when I paid for purchases with a $50 bill. This could be a problem. Constantly second guessing other’s feelings for the fear that you’re angering them is neither enjoyable nor productive. Worse, it you often apologise to counteract your own feelings of guilt – like I did when someone asked me for help at a time when I’d made other plans (So sorry, I’ve something on!”) – this might reveal that you have trouble with saying no, and establishing healthy boundaries.
But warning bells really sounded when I noticed that I would apologise even I was the wronged party. Once, I was interrupted – and worse, being mansplained to – and I said “sorry, please go ahead”, as if I shouldn’t even have been speaking in the first place. It came to a head when someone playing Pokemon Go suddenly veered right into me, stepping on my new shoes, and I found myself apologising while wiping my spilt drink off my top. Sorry, um, that I wasn’t watching where you were going? Again, I’m not alone. I an experiment, British anthropologist Kate Fox found that 80 per cent of strangers she bumped into said sorry even though they weren’t at fault. But this time, that was no consolation. I realised that repeatedly begging pardon for simply existing, often from strangers who didn’t matter, was taking an insidious toll on my self-esteem. I’d become quite paranoid about annoying others, and was half convinced I was an inconvenience a lot of the time. I was starting to mean those “sorry to bother you”s.
Look Who’s Sorry
At around this time, I got an earful from a friend because the first thing I did, after a string of appointment – changing, was to say sorry because I knew she’d moved a meeting to accommodate me. “How about ‘thank you’, instead?” she scolded. “If I did something nice, doesn’t ‘sorry’ just negate it?” Since it seemed a bad time for my most predictable reply, I was forced to swallow it and consider what she said. I was robbing her of her considerate act in a way, wasn’t I? She was an adult who’d made a choice, and I’d apologised as if I’d forced her into it. It had the unintended effect of shifting the focus from her to myself, sidestepping her sweet gesture instead of acknowledging it. And on my part, instead of being delighted and appreciative that my friend wanted to meet me enough to go through the trouble of shifting her meeting, I’d replaced it with a heavy feeling of unworthiness. Over-apologising wasn’t just affecting me, but also my relationships. Now, that really made me sorry.
Sorry Not Sorry
I now make an effort to be mindful when I feel the impulse to type or say the word. I pause to consider if it’s warranted, and try to switch my language to say “thank you” instead: “Thank you for making time for me”, instead of “Sorry I know you’re busy”; and “Thank you for doing that”; and “Thank you for going that”, instead of “Sorry to trouble you”. It’s a surprising hard habit to break, but I’m keeping at it because it does help me feel better about life. I carry less unneccessary guilt, and I worry less about whether people are upset with me. Focusing on people’s small kindness makes me happier than guessing at their potential irritations. And while “sorry” rarely brings a smile, “thank you” often does. What about the “unwarranted stories”? I now cut those out and get to the point instead. I’d observed that I most often said unnecessary “sorries” in work situations with men to soften how I came across, since I’ve been called a ball-breaker many times. I’d apologise whenever I had to remind a surbordinate to do well, his job. I said “forgive me” when my opinion differed from that of male co-workers who had no qualms about regularly interrupting me. I even said sorry each time I simply spoke up in male-dominated meetings. I no longer do any of that. And if there are men who don’t like it? Well, I’m not sorry.
Text: Donna Tang / Her World / February 2019