Apologizing is great, of course, but there is such a thing as apologizing too often. I had a biology teacher in high school who wouldn’t accept when his students said, “Sorry,” for mundane transgressions. “Don’t say sorry all the time,” he’d say, “or people are going to start thinking that you’re a sorry individual.”

We all know people (or possibly are people) who seem to be apologizing constantly. “Sorry I’m late,” “Sorry for taking up your time,” “Sorry for calling,” “Sorry for complaining at you.” And you get to the point where you think to yourself, “Good grief, save everyone some time and just apologize for existing.”

While seemingly harmless, stating unnecessary things as apologies tends to result in two effects: you essentially undercut every legitimate moment where an apology is actually needed by constantly apologizing (making your apology less valuable) and the negative phrasing that you use either lowers others’ opinion of you (because you’re constantly associating yourself with a negative exchange of some kind), or insults them because, by apologizing for essentially existing in their presence, you’re indicating that you suspect them to be inconvenienced by everything you do (thereby undermining any positive relationship you have with that person).

Sorry isn’t actually an apology.

We tend to use sorry for a lot of different situations, but we’ve gone well past the point where our use of the word actually matches the meaning.

Look at it this way:

The word “sorry” comes from the word “sore,” meaning “pained or distressed.” This is the same root that supplies us with the word “sorrow” which means “sadness.” If you’re “sorry” for something, it means that whatever it is has caused you to be sad, pained, or distressed—not that you regret doing something. So if you’re saying, “Sorry for interrupting,” or “Sorry for being late,” or “sorry” for one of the hundreds of other things we unconsciously say sorry for in a day, you’re not communicating to people that you regret that you’re being difficult, you’re communicating that whatever has caused you to say “sorry,” has put you in some strange state of distress, sadness, and pain.

While that might kind of be what we’re attempting to suggest, the word is used so often, and in so many circumstances that the meaning is completely lost on most people. Culturally, the words, “I’m sorry” are as much an obligation as they are a conversation filler, and ultimately, saying the words when you don’t mean them, or when the situation doesn’t merit them, will take away from instances where you actually mean the sentiment.

Stop saying sorry!

Apologizing in excess is an easy trap to fall into, and we pretty much all have that one person we feel like we’re constantly apologizing to (sometimes it’s our boss, sometimes it’s our partner, sometimes it’s our favourite relative).  If you catch yourself in situations where you’re constantly apologizing, don’t worry (and don’t apologize), as it’s a pretty easy fix:

1)     

Learn to rephrase what you’re saying.

If you feel like you’re making someone’s life harder, or being a burden, it’s easy to find yourself saying, “Sorry!” but if you can take the negative phrase of “sorry” and turn it into something positive, you can take a situation that makes you feel/appear burdensome and use it to acknowledge the compassion or sympathy/empathy that you’re receiving from the other person.

Instead ofTry
Sorry for bothering you with this.Thanks for talking to me about this.
Sorry I’m late.Thanks for your patience.
Sorry for complaining.Thank you for listening.
Sorry, but I don’t understand…Could you explain…
Sorry to interrupt, but…Excuse me/Pardon me…

2)      Learn the difference between apologizing and showing sympathy/consoling someone. We tend to throw “Oh, I’m sorry,” out to people in situations where we’ve done nothing wrong, and most of the time, instead of conveying the sympathy we want to convey, we end up making the person feel worse or frustrated.

Instead ofTry
Sorry you got stuck in traffic.How frustrating that you were stuck in traffic.
Sorry that your pet bunny had to be put down.That must have been such a hard decision; please let me know if you need anything.
Sorry that job opportunity fell through.It’s unfortunate that opportunity fell through, I know how much you were looking forward to it.

 

What about when you’re actually apologizing?

Technically speaking, the words “I’m sorry,” should only come out of your mouth when you’re actually apologizing for something that you’ve done or said. Even then, the words, “I apologize” can have as great an impact on a person (and sometimes greater) as the more commonly uttered, “I’m sorry.”

Truthfully, I think the severity of the situation, the amount of emotion involved in the situation, and your familiarity with the person that you’re apologizing to are all as important in choosing how you apologize as actually determining whether or not you should apologize. Ultimately, you’ll know which phrases to use with which person just based on how well you know the individual and how intimate the apology is, but I think a good rule of thumb is to keep “I’m sorry” for cases where you’re owning up to a mistake.

The next article is going to focus on how to receive an apology, but for now, I’d like you guys to focus on your language as it currently stands. What are some of the things that you find yourself saying sorry for? Try to figure out ways to rephrase those statements as something positive.