My Mom used to have my brother and I hug and say sorry when we were fighting. I hated it. I went through the motions without the e-motions. The words “I’m sorry” fascinate and anger me. Obviously, “I’m sorry” is absolutely the right thing to say in certain circumstances. Unfortunately, I feel it’s rarely used when it’d be nice to hear, and too often used in the wrong moments.
Saying “sorry” at the wrong time is one of my pet peeves. I remember as a manager I explained to my staff that I hate unnecessary apologizing. The same day, a sweet lad was apologizing for not understanding something. I calmly explained that he needn’t say “I’m sorry” for that. Then, recalling the morning conversation, he sputtered, “Oh! Shoot! Sorry!” I know they’re not doing it on purpose, but in this situation, saying it for not understanding a task I gave made me feel like a cockswinging authority figure who might dismiss him for displeasing me. Maybe people who say “sorry” all the time don’t consider how it makes others feel. And maybe they should.
I was watching The World’s Toughest Race Eco Challenge and contestants were being interviewed at a rest stop. Many of them were extremely exhausted, in pain, and hungry. And they choked up about missing their kids and immediately said, “I’m sorry”. One amazing athlete after another: I’m sorry for having emotions. I wanted to give my TV a shake! It says two things: 1) I’m embarrassed about not being able to stuff the emotions down, 2) I don’t trust you with my emotions enough to continue talking about them. The first one is plain to see. The second is more subtle, but it’s how I feel when I’m ready to hold space for someone and then they close down and say “sorry”. I try not to take it personally; I know it has more to do with them. I still feel sad if someone doesn’t feel safe with me. Obviously, this doesn’t go hand in hand with TV interviews, but it does with friends or family. I’d really encourage here, if you’re an apologizer, to say “thank you for listening”. Trust me, that feels much nicer to receive than “sorry”. Hearing Thank you feels like warmth, where I’m sorry feels like your loved one still feels like shit and no amount of listening, tea, or extra blankets, seems to be helping. Frankly, it gets a bit exhausting without the right feedback every now and then.
Two forms of “sorry” that I’m guilty of, simply because I don’t know an alternative, is “I’m sorry for your loss” and “I’m sorry you had to go through that”. The first remark seems to be the social standard when someone passes away. When I’ve been on the receiving end of those words, I’ve felt odd. I suppose I’ve felt that it doesn’t feel sincere because they’re words everyone says. Upon receiving the words, I make a mental note that that person did their duty, but we didn’t really connect. Yet I say these words as well because, “Dammit. Death sucks” isn’t always appropriate. And then, “sorry you’re going through that” is often met with the other person telling me that it isn’t my fault, no need to say sorry. Which… I know. I’m working on remembering, “that sounds hard” as an alternative.
Now let’s move on to an interesting realm of saying sorry in a calculated way. For example, a politician or celebrity does something the world largely disagrees with. They publicly apologize for doing whatever it was. Good PR. Whenever I hear that ‘so and so’ issued a statement apologizing for their behaviour, I always think, …so? The thing they did shows a lot about their character, just saying the words doesn’t take away what happened. But somehow it seems to work for some people! He said, “I’m sorry” we’ll just erase the previous knowledge from our minds and move forward. It’s a totally bizarre notion in our culture that’s somehow acceptable. I don’t dig it.
In conclusion, please keep saying “sorry’ if that’s what you mean. A meaningful I’m sorry is way up there with I love you as great things to say. Next step is self awareness, notice yourself saying it. Is it what you mean? Or do you mean thank you? Or maybe you’re just filling space because the moment feels awkward? Just pay attention. And, for the love of Pete, please don’t force others into empty I’m sorrys and false hugs.