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.