Want to give better apologies? Stop saying sorry

By Faith Oak

“Sorry, can you tell me where the bathroom is?”
“Sorry, but could I borrow a pencil?”
“Sorry to bother you with this question.”

Sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s a habit we all have – apologizing for everything, from asking one too many questions to sneezing in a silent classroom. In fact, the first time I was called out for saying “sorry” too much, I responded with an automatic, “Oh, sorry.”

In America, society instills in us a culture of politeness from an early age. Putting on an appropriately apologetic face after inconveniencing someone is a valued behavior, since it lets the apologizer get what he or she wants without seeming too offensive or forward.

A quick “sorry” is always hovering in the back of our minds, ready to be whipped out whenever the conversation starts getting too audacious for our tastes.

But as convenient as the word may be, it is not actually doing us any favors. When we include an apology as a qualifier in front of every comment and request, it turns into a means for personal validation and instant gratification. Even worse, our words lose their sincerity for the occasions when they are actually necessary. Looking back, I’m sure that some of my apologies for standing in people’s way sounded more heartfelt than those for actually hurting them.

A constantly apologetic attitude is unhealthy for those on the receiving end, too. When we apologize to others, we give them the power to decide whether or not we deserve forgiveness. On the other end of the interaction, it becomes tiring for people to constantly feel as though they have to offer that forgiveness. By excessively doing so, they come to associate us with our shortcomings rather than strengths. In saying “sorry” for minor inconveniences that do not warrant an apology, we automatically place ourselves in a position of inferiority and project incompetence and neediness.

Many who have become concerned about our society’s misuse of “sorry” have advocated for an extreme alternative: cutting out their use of the word entirely.

“I’ve been much more aware of the frequency with which I say ‘sorry.’ And now, my daughter and I have started a contest to see who can say it less,” CNN journalist Kelly Wallace wrote.

Wallace is just one out of a large wave of people who have risen to support this movement. While this attempt to address this situation head on deserves some props, these courses of action are really not necessary, nor are they beneficial. We may be over-apologizing, but the real problem is that we often do not understand what we are apologizing for.

Saying sorry has its place during certain moments. It is entirely appropriate to apologize after feeling that you have disrespected or brought harm to someone. But the word represents a promise, a repentant pledge to do better next time. To abuse it is to disrespect its fundamental purpose and, in turn, the precious value of language in communicating our feelings.

Maybe a more appropriate response to these false “sorry” situations would be “thank you.” I have tried adhering to this line of action ever since a friend suggested it to me. As simple as this tweak of language seems, I still find myself apologizing for things before asking myself why. But when I do, the spirit of the discussion immediately becomes more positive. By expressing gratitude rather than sorrow, everybody benefits. There is a marked contrast between the positive connotation of appreciation and the defeatist nuances of an unwarranted apology.

So, knowing the weight every “sorry” carries, try out a “thank you” to replace it once in a while. You can breathe easy with the security of not having to apologize for every misstep, and your sincerity never has to be diminished by your empty guilt again.

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