These days, I only say “I’m sorry” in situations where I am actually, truly, incontrovertibly, sorry. It hasn’t always been this way, however.
Breaking my habit of apologizing for anything and everything took time. I caught myself apologizing for silly things like walking through an open door that a stranger was nice enough to hold. Or for passing someone in a tight hallway and feeling guilty that we briefly had to share the space. For taking what I perceived as ‘too long’ to remove my jacket at a restaurant as the hostess waited to hand me my menu. Why did I do it so often? In my head I think I considered it a sure-fire way to avoid conflict. I can’t know for sure how strangers will interact/react to situations, so I would preemptively remove even the slightest chance of such conflict by apologizing up front for any interaction we were about to have.
After a couple months of silently kicking myself every time I was apologizing for these types of interactions, I slowly began to replace “I’m sorry” with “Thank you”, “Pardon me”, and other more succinct forms of communication better suited to each situation. That doesn’t mean I still don’t slip every now and then, spouting out an “I’m sorry” when someone else’s dog nearly trips me at the dog park, or when I’m offered a seat on the light rail and I gratefully accept (“I’m sorry, thank you”).
There are plenty of articles on this topic, directed at women, inviting them to ‘stop apologizing for everything’ and to realize that their overuse of “I’m sorry” made them look weak in the workplace. Those articles and my own habit adjustment got me thinking – not so much about perceived weakness, but more about effective communication. “I’m sorry” was my go-to but I knew there were better ways I could be expressing myself without apologizing for each and every one of my actions. I wanted to explore how often my female friends apologized for actions that didn’t necessarily warrant an apology. Did they think about how often they were saying “I’m sorry” when a “pardon me” or a “thank you for your patience” would have suited the situation just fine? Did my friends see excessive apologizing as a bad habit to be broken? A nicety to be used sparingly? An unintended sign of weakness? Why did they say it if they said it often? Did they even care?
I conducted a super scientific, highly technical poll on social media, enlisting the help of my friends to let me know their thoughts and habits surrounding the use of “I’m sorry” in their every day lives.
The sheer volume of replies to my question was telling. Everyone seemed to have a strong opinion on the subject. The majority of the responses I received were similar to my own. Many of my female friends admitted to apologizing far more often than they would like, and would end up being frustrated with themselves “for apologizing to complete strangers for doing absolutely nothing wrong”. One friend didn’t even realize she was excessively apologizing until a business associate brought it to her attention. Once she was cognizant of the habit, she made an effort to apologize less, saving it for when it was warranted. I wondered—What did that associate think of her? Did he regard her as weak, or strange for saying it so often? Did her overuse of the apology make her seem insecure?
A couple of my male friends also chimed in, offering that they freely apologized in instances where a “pardon me” would have suited the situation just fine. Why? Some felt that manners and kindliness prompted the apology, along with a “put others first” mentality.
Maybe it’s the female condition guiding my opinion but to me, (Disclaimer: Yes, I’m a feminist) if a man apologizes, he may never question how others perceive him in doing so. He may never second guess how he is perceived by those around him, or how his life could be affected, potentially adversely, by such a seemingly simple action. My guess is that those types of self-analyzing thoughts are a cross women get the distinct pleasure of bearing.
I am conscientious of how I want others to perceive me. That also applies to how I think I’m expressing myself and how I think others do actually perceive me. Sometimes I do and say things with a very heavy filter, for the benefit of certain individuals around me who I feel might not necessarily appreciate who I am in all my honesty. In other instances, my intent is more, “F*** it – let’s see what happens”. However, with “I’m sorry”, I have made a strong effort to use it when it’s needed and replace it when a better type of communication could / should be used. My thoughts on internal vs. external perceptions are, of course, hyper-subjective.
The conversation on social media was lively and very interactive. Opinions ranged from apologizing way too often and kicking oneself to not saying it or other niceties nearly enough to people. The fact that so many of my friends had such strong opinions on the subject tells me that it is one which deserves some attention, if only to raise awareness about effective communication and how we choose the words we use in every day situations.