Sorry-Not sorry

We live in a sorry culture.

I recently “had an opportunity to apologize,” and I’ve been reflecting on apologies. It’s not a mind-blowing revelation to suggest we apologize too much, and in the case of the notoriously polite Brits or Canadians, it’s even a stereotype. But based on recent personal events, I’ve come to the conclusion that we say “sorry” too much and not enough.

I'm Sorry in white lettering on a gray wooden background
You know when you mean it.

Why is “sorry” so hard to get right?

We have a tendency to apologize for the wrong things. My wise friend Mark told me last year that he had given up apologizing. That conversation has been life changing for me. It has prompted me to stop saying “I’m sorry” all the time, particularly in emails and conversations at work.

I’ve shifted, instead, to thanking people more and showing gratitude for their patience and flexibility.

This is what it looks like in practice: “I’m sorry I’m just now responding to your email. It’s been a busy week with a major event coming up, and I’m behind on my email…” has been replaced with “Thank you for your patience while I catch up on responding to email…”

Before, there was so much I was apologizing for that no one should feel badly about. There was no reason for it. I should not be apologizing for being sick, busy or affected by circumstances beyond my control.

I was most guilty of over apologizing when I was late. I hate being late. I respect other people’s time, and I do not want to communicate that I think my time is more important than their’s. If I really am at fault for being tardy, I will still apologize for lateness, but more often, it’s another meeting that runs long or the predictably unpredictable Atlanta traffic or other members of my party that have a looser cultural relationship with time that have caused me to be late. It’s not good form to blame someone else, and most of the time, the person I’m meeting is either late themselves or they don’t care I’ve been a few minutes late. It’s not a thing. I shouldn’t make it a thing.

What I’m doing a lot more of in those instances is thanking people for understanding and being flexible. It’s less self-deprecating, more positive and has the added benefit of being true. I am thankful.

The other side of the apology problem is under apologizing. This is also an easy problem to spot. If your apology has the word “if” in it, it’s not a good apology. “If I’ve offended you…” or “I’m sorry if you felt bad when I said…” are not good apologies. Just take responsibility for what happened, commit to addressing the harm and plan not to repeat it.

I may be making progress on over-apologizing, but my real struggle is with delayed apologizing. I always get around to saying “I’m sorry,” but sometimes it takes so long for me to get there that my original infraction festers and becomes exponentially worse. This was my chief sin toward my family that has been the source of my recent rumination.

I believe the sooner I get to “I’m sorry” the better. One of my all-time favorite moments from the marriage instruction manual known as “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a line of dialogue in which Ray immediately begins apologizing to Debra for the words he is saying as they come out of his mouth. I believe it went something like this:

“So I should go to work and raise the kids, right? It should be all me. And what do you do all day?… I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

I typically know that I’ve messed up just that quickly. As soon as I say it, or sometimes even before I say it, warning bells go off in my brain. I don’t believe preemptive apologies are sincere. If I’m about to start a sentence with “I’m sorry, but…” then I just need to not say that thought.

When I have done or said something wrong, hurtful or thoughtless, then the quicker I apologize the less of an impact my mistake has on the people around me. The kryptonite that keeps me from excelling at this relationship-preserving skill is defensiveness. Stubbornly clinging to my initial defensive reaction prevents me from getting to “I’m sorry” more quickly. I could prevent a lot of misery if I would not react defensively to my own failing.

As we head into Valentine’s Day and relationships, romantic or otherwise, are on your mind, I’d take a few moments to take stock of the state of your sorriness. Apologize less for what you didn’t cause and more for what you did. Mastering this skill will be appreciated much more than chocolates, roses and cards.

The lost art of listening

Hello, my name is Lance, and I have listening problem.

This week I attended one of those four-hour workplace training sessions on emotional intelligence. It included an exercise on active listening. I was horrible.

listening device
Maybe someone at Tech could invent something like this to help me listen better.

The humiliating experience caused me to reexamine a fundamental assumption about myself. Deep down, I believe that I have pretty good emotional intelligence. I feel like I know myself and can read people pretty well. I know how to make eye contact and affirm people when they talk.

Except I don’t.

The examples of my failures to listen are starting to pile up.

Two weeks ago during dinner, my 12-year-old son had to confiscate my iPhone because I was texting during dinner. Talk about role reversal!

Last weekend, while driving to see my in-laws in Sandersville, Carla said an entire paragraph of information that I completely missed. I suspect I had dozed off.

And now, with the pressure on and in an intentional exercise to practice active listening, the best I could do was nod and say “Hmmm….”


This experience reminded me of a time earlier in my marriage when I first became aware that I cannot listen if a television is on anywhere in my vicinity. When you first begin cohabitating with someone in the throes of marital bliss, you hang on their every syllable. But after a while, words, sentences and even entire monologues can go by, particularly if there’s a ballgame on.

Robert Mankoff New Yorker cartoon
This Robert Mankoff cartoon from The New Yorker is all too true.

Earlier in my marriage after a particularly bad run of non-listening, I sought the advice of my travel companions during a car trip across Missouri. From Harold, the trained minister, I got words of wisdom and reassurance about “focus and priorities.” From Ben, my boss and mentor who had taught me much in my career, I got: “Well, maybe she just needs to say fewer or more important things.”

Fast forward a few weeks when my inattention reoccurred. Guess which pithy saying popped into my head to answer a barrage of accusations? Yep, the wrong one. Like a scene from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I tried to retract the words as they were coming out of my mouth.

Although Carla swears she doesn’t remember the exchange today, I do, and I can tell you unequivocally, don’t ever say anything like that to your spouse … or anyone.

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

To no one’s surprise, one of the biggest culprit’s in the New South is technology. Barron was right to take away my phone. I have done the same thing to him. Conversations are the building blocks of good relationships, and as we enter the teen years with our children, they are essential. I have to learn to turn the screens off.

Another culprit is busyness and preoccupation. If I’m busy rushing off to a meeting after church, it’s nearly impossible for me to focus on the person trying to share an important concern. Being in the moment and being with the person in front of you is a discipline.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to self-absorption. I find it hard to listen because I am inside my own head way too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded with thoughts on everything from what I’m going to say next to my to-do list. And if someone is sharing a problem, I think about possible solutions, rather than displaying empathy, letting them share their feelings and affirming them.

Here’s how the course I took described passive vs. active listening:

active vs. passive listening chartAdmitting you have a problem is the first step. You, the loyal readers of New South Essays, are my support group. Hold me accountable. If you catch me not listening, call me on it.

Now stop reading this blog and go listen to someone important to you. You may find that you also have some work to do in the listening department.

What annoys you most about people not listening? Is it the ever-present smart phone or tablet screen? Are you a good listener? How do you do it? What techniques might help the rest of us non-listeners? Leave a comment and help in my recovery. It takes all of us.