In my last blog entry, I made a public vow to stop apologizing so often. Saying “I’m sorry” half a dozen times a day had become a habit for me—and for millions of other people, according to media reports.
Avoiding the sorry words has been cathartic. Over the past week I didn’t apologize to any of my friends or family, in writing or in person, for much of anything. I didn’t even apologize when I was wrong. Did the world collapse? Did I lose friends and gain enemies?
None of the above. To my surprise, no one seemed to notice. When I simply admitted my mistakes and accepted responsibility without apologizing or groveling, I felt better about myself. And the energy I gained by not feeling guilty allowed me to reflect on apologies in general:
Bad Behavior: The more times you say you’re sorry, the less it means—especially if you don’t alter the offending behavior. Apologizing for minor transgressions can become a way of excusing yourself for continuing bad behavior. For example, a certain person in my life sends emails and text messages that begin with “I’m so sorry,” and end with –
- “I’m running late” (again).
- “Can we postpone until next week” (again)?
- “I forgot to call you” (again).
- “I didn’t check my messages” (again).
- “I’ll mail your gift tomorrow” (not).
These apologies are annoying because I know the underlying behavior won’t change. This is manipulative apologizing. I feel angry about the empty apology, but if I refuse to accept it, I seem unreasonable. If you’re writing a novel and want to create an exasperating character, try using this person as your model.
Avoiding Conflict: I dislike conflict and sometimes find myself apologizing quickly to avoid an argument. I know this is a short term solution that glosses over underlying issues and may lead to an unbalanced relationship. Instead, I should try and identify the real problem. I truly hope I’ll never again say, “I’m sorry. Are you mad at me?”
Fight the need to apologize first because you want to be the good guy. Let people take responsibility for their actions.
And that leads to another point: By apologizing, you can make an issue out of something people don’t care about. Did anyone notice when you slipped into the meeting ten minutes late? Was the waitress upset when you asked for extra napkins? Is the person sitting beside you on the subway even aware of your large bags?
Things I don’t want to ever say again:
- I’m sorry you have a headache.
- I’m sorry you bumped into me.
- I’m sorry my coughing (which I can’t help) disturbs your sleep.
Quotes about Apologizing:
“Why do women say “I’m sorry” so much? One of my favorite self-love sermons is this: Resist saying ‘I’m sorry’ so often. You are not “sorry.” You are magnificent beyond measure, perfect in your imperfections, and wonderfully made.” –Abioloa Abrams, The Sacred Bombshell Handbook of Self-Love
“Saying sorry too much is an anchor on your upward mobility.” –Aimee Cohen, Woman Up! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins That Sabotage Your Success
I’ve decided to continue boycotting the words “I’m sorry” and reserve them for appropriate situations. A true apology calls for more than words; it should include genuine feelings of remorse, accepting responsibility, willingness to make amends, and an explanation that doesn’t include lame excuses. An excellent article in Psychology Today by Juliana Breines offers suggestions for keeping apologies in check:
1. Say “thank you” instead. When your roommate or significant other does the dishes, rather than apologizing for not having done them yourself (which just burdens them with the need to reassure you), express your gratitude (which makes them feel happy and appreciated, and probably more apt to voluntarily do the dishes again later). This only applies, of course, when you generally do your share of the chores–if your roommate is in a huff because your never help out, thanking them for what they really should not have had to do may only annoy them further.
2. Save it. Saying sorry too much can trivialize the act of apology, making the important ones carry less weight. Don’t cry wolf–save it for when you really need it, and mean it.
3. Try not to mess up in the first place. Easier said than done, of course. But if you know you have a (preventable) bad habit that negatively affects other people, better to try to avoid doing it in the first place, or at least avoid repeating it, rather than just apologizing after the fact.
4. Know where to draw the line. Apologize for your role in a negative event, but leave it at that. If you’re someone who likes to make amends and resolve conflict right away, it may be tempting to apologize for more than your share just to smooth everything over. But doing this can lead you to feel resentful and can let others off the hook too easily.
5. Embrace your imperfections. You don’t have to apologize for having a bad hair day, for spilling on your shirt, or for needing three attempts to parallel park.
Sammie Justesen is a publisher and the author of Dialogue for Writers, released in May, 2014.
She is also an artist and president of the Lawrence County Art Association.
New reviews of Dialogue for Writers
Starting with a comfortable and clear introduction, Dialogue for Writers is great book for anyone wanting to learn, ramp up, or revisit dialogue in their writing. Well-written, organized, and filled with examples, there’s tips and techniques for every major genre of writing – from memoirs to graphic novels.
Dialogue for Writers covers the basic how-to information for writing dialogue, and then the author expands the topic. She discuss other aspects of writing, such as “show, don’t tell,” the temptation to over-use adverbs, and how to find the best dialogue tags. My favorite section covers dialogue for different genres, including journalism, family history, memoir, and even poetry. This is a book I’ll keep nearby and use often.