A recent ad by Pantene titled Not Sorry created a buzz about these two words and how they fit into our culture. This provocative clip illustrates how women use “I’m sorry” as a crutch, or a way to smooth over social situations. Some viewers found the ad offensive, but I agree with it. I believe saying “I’m sorry” becomes a habit and turns into a weak, wimpy phrase—like the zombie words I wrote about in an earlier post. Saying “I’m sorry” can be a cop-out that makes us appear weak.
The Pantene ad alerted me to a habit of apologizing too often and for silly things. Sometimes I say “I’m sorry” when I mean, “Excuse me.” Sorry should be reserved for doing something wrong or hurting someone and offering a sincere apology. But, like the women in the ad, I’ve caught myself —
- Apologizing when someone bumps into me, even when it isn’t my fault. “Oops! I’m sorry!”
- Apologizing before I ask someone to do something. “Sorry to trouble you, but could you please . . “
- Apologizing for asking a question. “Sorry, but I wonder. . .”
- Apologizing to begin a phone call or email. “Sorry I didn’t respond sooner.”
- Apologizing for taking up too much space. “Sorry about my bags.”
- Apologizing when someone crowds me in an elevator. “Sorry you stepped on me.”
- Apologizing to grab someone’s attention. “Sorry, but I need another napkin.”
- “Sorry, Nemo!” I knew I’d reached the tipping point when I heard myself apologizing to the CAT for not topping off his food dish in a timely manner.
As writers, we know that overusing a phrase will dilute its power. In TIME magazine, Jessica Bennett says, “Sorry is simply another way of downplaying our power, of softening what we do to seem nice.” Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, points out that: “Women know they have to be likeable to get ahead. Apologizing is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening, Apologizing is one way of being deemed more likable.”
But do we want to be liked at the cost of sounding defensive and unsure of ourselves? How about being liked and respected at the same time? That’s why Pantene created the ad, according to Kevin Crociata, their marketing director, “We used marked research to look at what gender norms were holding women back. . . Women who simply say what is on their mind without apologizing beforehand demonstrate more confidence and more conviction. Count the number of times in a day you begin a conversation with the words, ‘I’m sorry.’ Then ask yourself if that apology was necessary. Did it weaken your words before they were ever spoken?”
Critics of the Pantene ad (and there are many) point out that “Sorry!” has evolved into a socially acceptable way to help the world move a little more smoothly. But why not use the correct words instead? “Excuse me,” spoken with a smile, is a fine alternative. Picture the Queen of England as you say it.
Here’s my new resolution: Do a gut check. If saying I’m sorry makes me feel weak or uncertain in a given situation, then I need to find different words. Most of the time I have nothing to feel sorry about. When I feel “I’m sorry,” coming on, I pledge to bite my tongue, pause, and rephrase my next statement.
A tip for writers
When writing dialogue, if you want to portray a character who seems weak and uncertain, have that person say “I’m sorry” too often. Your readers will get the idea. If you overdo “I’m sorry,” they’ll be offended. And so it is in real life.
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.
A new review of Dialogue for Writers
This book delivers. If you are a writer, you’ll find a wealth of information and insight that will allow you to assess your style and discover practical ways to make good writing better.
Even popular published authors can benefit from this book. For instance, I am a Stephenie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have”snickered” and “chuckled” so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting. Sammie Justesen’s book offers great advice from a number of perspectives including the all-important publisher’s perspective. I have no hesitation in rating it a five-star book.