©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
Never ruin an apology with an excuse.
“We make quite a team,” laughed Jaylen to her best friend Shirley. “I rarely apologize and you say ‘Sorry’ all the time.”
“I know,” said Shirley, “and funny you should bring that up. I spent the afternoon discussing that very topic.”
“Excuse me?” asked Jaylen.
“You heard me. I met with the company attorneys for three hours getting prepped for appearing in court on a lawsuit they are defending.”
“And what did ‘Sorry’ have to do with anything?” asked Jaylen.
“Everything!” said Shirley. “The discussion began when the lead attorney asked me, ‘What would be your response if the plaintiff’s attorney asks you: “What do you think about the plaintiff tripping over the curb?’” I responded with, ‘I’d say I was so very sorry, that’s what.’ Turns out that was the wrong answer in spades. He said a sentence like that could lose the case! The impression the jury would receive was that company was accepting blame and liability for the fall. He repeated that apologizing is not needed when you have done nothing for which to accept any blame.”
“I’m listening...” said Jaylen, learning forward to show her interest.
“According to the attorney, saying ‘I’m sorry’ is an appropriate response if you personally did something to cause an accident or hurt another person by your negative comments. Or if you were responsible for knocking over the pitcher of orange juice, and so on,” Shirley explained. “In this case, no one personally did anything to trigger the plaintiff’s fall. She was wearing 6-inch heels and talking on her mobile phone when she missed seeing the cement side-walk curb. ‘Distracted walking,’ he called it. He must have asked me 50 questions coaching me learn to say ‘I regret’ instead of ‘I’m sorry.’”
Yes,” said Shirley, “And I need to practice this. If I did nothing personally to contribute to whatever the other person is upset about or wants to blame me for, then the appropriate phrase is: I regret that happened.’ Just because a person blames you for something does not mean you really did anything that requires an apology.”
Jaylen laughed. “I’ll bet that was a challenge. You say you’re sorry all the time for everything… even for taking up space on the planet.”
“I know,” said Shirley, ruefully. “I grew up being blamed for stuff I never even did and couldn’t come to meals until I said I was sorry. I hated to miss meals and guess I started saying ‘I’m sorry’ about everything just in case I missed a time when something was my fault! Looking back, I think I wanted to please everyone, get everyone’s approval.”
“And some people who are only too happy to make something your fault and blame you—rightly or wrongly—in an attempt to unload onto you any discomfort they might feel about what happened,” said Jaylen.
Shirley nodded. “I did laugh when the team told me about a case where one man was accusing another of some perceived wrong. The second man said, ‘I wasn’t even in town when that happened to you,’ at which the first man retorted with, ‘I’m not saying you did anything. I’m just saying I’m blaming you for it!’ Crazy! The attorney gave me some helpful examples.”
“Like what?” said Jaylen.
“Imagine that I visit a friend who has a large dog—who happens to like me very much, incidentally. The dog takes a flying leap to greet me and knocks over an expensive Tiffinay lamp in the process. I did nothing to cause that accident. The appropriate response is, ‘Oh, I regret that lamp is broken. I know it was a favorite of yours.’”
Shirley continued. “On the other hand, imagine that I throw my coat toward the couch and it accidently hits the lamp instead. I am responsible for that and the appropriate response would be, ‘I am very sorry. What can I do to make this right?’”
“Interesting,” said Jaylen. “Very interesting. In the past saying ‘I’m sorry’ is clearly something I should have done more than once.”
“Good plan,” said Shirley, laughing. “Together we might want to work on changing our occasional sorry behaviors.”
Some believe that males have a tendency to apologize less often than do females. In this current society—albeit a generalization¾many females tend to over-use the phrase I’m sorry while some males fail to say “sorry” even when fully appropriate to do so. Studies suggest this is because females may possess an enhanced sense of what constitutes offensive behavior. Once you are aware of this, you will likely observe instances when “I regret” is the appropriate response and when “I’m sorry” is the better option.
And you can learn to moderate your own behavior appropriately. For example:
- Two people pass each other through a double doorway and one person says, “I’m sorry.” For what? There was plenty of space in the doorway and each individual had an equal right to walk through it.
- Two people pass each other through a double doorway and one person bumps into the other because of reading a text on a mobile phone. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot to look where I was going,” would be appropriate.
However, sometimes it is not that simple and straight forward. For example, a good friend says “You hurt my feelings when you said that!” Everything is about perception. If that individual is taking something personal—even if that was not the intent—you have a choice. You could say, “I regret you feel bad since I had no intention to hurt your feelings.”
On the other hand, if you realize that what you said was insensitive, then “I’m sorry” would be appropriate—but you need to mean it! Saying those words when you do not mean them will likely come across as insincere. And if you say “I’m sorry,”—as Benjamin Franklin put it—avoid making excuses in an attempt to justify when you did.
Mark Matthews made a good point when he said “Apologizing does not always mean you're wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value your relationship more than your ego.” And as Craig Silvey opined, “Sorry is a question that begs forgiveness, because the metronome of a good heart won’t settle until things are set right and true. Sorry doesn’t take things back, but it pushes things forward. It bridges the gap.”
So what’s the problem if you do overuse the phrase “I’m sorry” or use it inappropriately? There can be several potential negative outcomes:
- When you sincerely are sorry (and wish to convey that), the impact of your words can be watered down from overuse in the past.
- You may appear incompetent, especially when apologizing for something you did not cause in any way, shape, or form.
- Overapologizing can make you appear unworthy of another person’s time.
- Saying “I’m sorry” after an accident may be perceived as an admission of guilt whether or not you were at fault. (Note: Let your insurance company make that decision.)
- Your words impact your own brain! Apologizing needlessly can undermine your confidence, giving the impression that you are always responsible for any miscommunication. It also sends a message that you appear to be less interested in being honest and more concerned about appearing to be agreeable.
- Resentment can fester in a relationship if one person is continually overresponsible and apologizes frequently. For example, perhaps you usually pick up the mail but this time the other person stops by the Post Office and collects the mail. You might say “Thank you, that was a big help!” rather than apologizing because you had not yet managed to get to that chore.
- Add other phrases to your vocabulary. If you need to walk in front of several people to get to your seat in the middle of a row, saying “Excuse me,” or “Pardon me,” or “Thank you,” would all be appropriate.
As the two friends continued to chat, Shirley shared her reflections on the topic. “I learned a lot today. I’m realizing that there is often no reason either to blame or to take blame needlessly. In life, sometimes stuff just happens.”
“And I am realizing it will be helpful for me to ask myself, ‘Did I really do something wrong here?’ If yes, I will apologize,” said Jaylen. “If not, I will use the phrase, 'I regret'.”
“When I catch myself saying ‘I’m sorry’ out of habit, I plan to ask myself the same question,” Shirley said. “And if the answer is no, I will choose to avoid communicating that I think I did!”
Jaylen laughed. “I’ve learned something today because you learned something!”
Together these friends do make quite a team. No regrets expected, going into the future!