Sorry. It’s a word that may pop out of our mouths as if on autopilot. Think about it: You accidentally bump into someone or need to move out of someone’s way as they maneuver down the sidewalk. Or when you must change plans or think you’re about to disappoint someone, what’s the first word you say? Most likely it is, “Sorry.”
For many of us, parents trained us and ingrained into us saying this word. “Tell them you’re sorry,” we were told when we picked a neighbor’s flower or were too rough with a playmate. And from that, we could have gotten into the habit of saying the word and we may not even realize when it slips out of our mouths. We say sorry for a number of reasons, even though we may not actually be apologizing for something we’ve done or not done. We also may say sorry to avoid conflict, to sneak in a justification (“I’m sorry but…”), or to launch into past grievances.
EFFECTS OF SAYING SORRY TOO OFTEN
But the thing is, “sorry” can be meaningless (kind of like the fillers/verbal tics umm and uhh), and while we may think all of our “sorry” saying signifies we are nice human beings, it actually has a different effect. In The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships therapist Beverly Engel writes that over-apologizing isn’t so different from over-complimenting. You may think you’re being a cooperative and caring person—or that you’re being empathetic—but the message you’re sending others is that you lack confidence and are ineffectual.
For example, if a colleague tells you something bad happened to them, you may feel the urge to say, “I’m sorry” even though you had nothing to do with the situation. Whatever happened wasn’t your fault. Instead of sorry, saying something like “That must have hurt” or “I’m saddened to hear that” may increase your bond with the person. Or even acknowledging that whatever happened much have really sucked.
Years ago I designed a greeting card for a company and the front of a card has a single lemon with the words “Sometimes life sucks” and the interior of the card has a pile of lemons with the words “and sometimes it sucks worse.” I’ve sent the card to people after a family death and heard back that the receivers loved the card. They found it to be more understanding of the grief that the “in sympathy” or “praying for you” sentiments of other cards.
Frequently saying “sorry” can actually lessen the impact of your actual apologies—for those times when you really need to say, “I screwed up.” And frequent sorry saying can also being annoying for the people you hang out with most often, just like any other word said all of the time.
Also, some studies have found that saying “sorry” often can actually lower your self-esteem by subconsciously making you think you are repeatedly doing things wrong.
And if you are intentionally rejecting someone (either canceling plans or breaking up with them, for example) a study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology even found that saying “I’m sorry” then could cause the other person to “feel worse, or that they have to forgive the rejecter before they are ready,” says Gili Freedman, one of the study’s authors.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD OF SAYING S—-
First of all, be self-aware of how often you say sorry and when you do or do not actually mean that you are. Conscious awareness of a behavior and then taking responsibility for it is the only way to change it.
Next, know what you should and should not apologize for. Say “sorry” when you really mean it and when you are taking responsibility for your action and or inaction, especially when you plan to change that behavior in the relationship with the person.
An apology, when you need to make one, should involve taking responsibility; acknowledging that you failed or hurt someone; validate the person’s anger, disappointment, etc.; expressing actual remorse; and asking what you can do to mend the relationship.
If you aren’t really sorry or it is a situation in which you are unnecessarily saying “sorry”, consider rephrasing by expressing gratitude. For example, if you are stuck in traffic and that makes you late for a meeting, of course let the person know you are stuck in traffic and will be late. But then when you do get to the designated place, the first thing from your mouth should be “Thank you for waiting for me. I appreciate and value your time.” Or some variation of on that theme of gratitude.
Forbes says if your lack of being able to do something is going to cause problems for others, offer a new commitment. Say that you take full responsibility for the error, explain the facts about the unanticipated challenge (if you need to and without making excuses). And then propose some solutions and offer a new commitment and then stick to it.
And if you need a bit of AI help with your e-mails to avoid the word sorry, Google Chrome offers a Just Not Sorry G-mail Plug-in to offer you language alternatives.
So the next time you open your mouth to say the S-word, stop yourself. Ask, am I really? And if not, find something else to say that will be meaningful to those around you. They’ll be glad you did and so will you.