I’m so sorry.
I’m sorry, but can you help me?
Do you say “I’m sorry” a lot? I used to say “I’m sorry” for all sorts of things—even things that didn’t really require an apology. I got my first clue that I overused the phrase when I was living in Germany. “I’m sorry” in German is, “Es tut mir leid.” It literally translates as, “It does (or causes) me sorrow.” I would use this phrase often in Germany. If I was in someone’s way, I would say, “I’m sorry,” in German. If I was walking through the elevator door when someone was coming out, I would say, “I’m sorry.”
I was sorry for many things, it seemed.
I don’t remember the details, but at some point in time, an acquaintance called it to my attention that I said, “I’m sorry” an awful lot. In fact, I was told that the times that I was apologizing were not really times when I should apologize—at least in the German culture. Perhaps, I could have used the phrase, “Excuse me,” when I had to walk close to someone, but, in reality, I didn’t really need to say anything at all, and especially not, “I’m sorry.”
In other words, I had nothing to feel sorry for.
Like I said, this was my first clue, and when I returned home to America, this new discovery caused me to re-evaluate how often I said, “I’m sorry,” in English. And, upon reflection, it was a lot.
Why did I apologize so often?
That was the question. Here is what I have figured out, and I would love to share it with you, in case, you too, overuse this phrase.
Reason #1: Social Conditioning
I’m a woman, and I say “I’m sorry” a lot. Does that mean all women apologize too much? No, of course not, but there does seem to be a pattern. I say this because I just googled “Why women say I’m sorry so much” and a long list of articles on the subject emerged from many from reputable sites, from the New York Times to Forbes Magazine.
So, I’m not alone.
Sloane Crosley, in her article, “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop,” puts into words an idea that deeply resonates with me and my upbringing. She says,
“For so many women, myself included, apologies are inexorably linked with our conception of politeness. Somehow, as we grew into adults, “sorry” became an entry point to basic affirmative sentences. True, this affliction is not exclusive to our gender. It can be found among men — in particular, British men — but it is far more stereotypical of women.”
So, this is not necessarily a gender issue, but an issue that is birthed by social norms around what it means to be a polite and good boy or girl.
I grew up during a time in America when “Children were to be seen and not heard.” In other words, it was important that I played by myself and did not bother anyone or draw attention to myself. To ask for something was to possibly burden someone with my request.
Therefore, “I’m sorry but….” became the intro to many of my sentences.
I’m sorry but I need to ask you a question.
I’m sorry but could you help me with something?
This is what I mean by social conditioning. I was conditioned to believe I needed to apologize for my wants, needs, and requests. This doesn’t mean I had a bad childhood; it simply was the “sign of the times,” as they say.
Perhaps you were raised in a similar manner or come from a culture that encourages this type of behavior, as well. It’s certainly not your fault, but it might be time to consider a change.
It’s true that it might take a little while to train yourself not to say, “I’m sorry” so often. At least, it has taken some time for me. But I think the effort is worth it because constant apologizing can erode your sense of self over time.
Carolyn Steber, author of the article, “What Lowers Self Esteem,11 Habits That Can Make You Feel Less Empowered” offers this quote from psychotherapist Brennan C. Mallonee, LMHC: "If you're always the one to apologize, even when the other person is responsible, it can leave you feeling as though you're the sort of person who's often wrong and owes everyone an apology just for being you.”
In my experience, no benefit comes from apologizing for being the person you are. You are you, and there’s no need to apologize for that. Moreover, if you are not responsible for the mistake, don't take the blame.
But social conditioning is not the only reason I used to apologize so much.
Reason #2: I lacked the language.
Yes, I might be a native English speaker, but that does not mean I know everything when it comes to English. This is a prime example. I thought that “I’m sorry” was more versatile than it really was.
In fact, there are other responses that are often better in situations that require some level of personal responsibility be taken. And, this was brought to my attention by one of my students. She sent me the most insightful set of memes, which show an alternative to “I’m sorry” that is 100 times more empowering.
Are you ready for it?
The response is..
Yes, THANK YOU. You can check out the full set of cartoons at Bored Panda, but to give you an example, when you are late by a few minutes, instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” you can say, “Thank you so much for waiting for me.”
Can you see and feel the difference? By showing thanks to the person for his or her patience, you bring an element of positivity to the situation. You aren’t a bad person; you were just a few minutes late. As long as you don’t make a habit of it, thanking the person for waiting can be just as effective—if not more effective—than apologizing.
Now, if you truly have nothing to apologize for there is another great response at your disposal:
SAY NOTHING AT ALL.
For example, when you need to ask for help, there is no reason to apologize. Simply make the request and say thank you when needed.
I’ve even caught myself saying, “I’m sorry” just for standing near someone or walking by them. There’s no need. You’ve done nothing wrong, so say nothing at all.
Now, this article is not a call to be cold and thoughtless. Not at all. I’m simply saying that it is important to discern between when an apology is needed and when it’s not. If your apology could be replaced with, “I’m sorry that I have burdened you,” then you probably don’t need to apologize. Instead, thank the other person for their love and support.
I would love to hear from you. As an ESL learner, do you find yourself apologizing too frequently? If so, what do you think the hidden reasons are? Is it a language issue, a social conditioning issue, or something else entirely?
Curious? Here are some additional articles on the topic: