I’m sorry, I’m not sorry


I always look forward to road trips with the family, even if it’s a quick weekend getaway. I am amazed at how much I learn when I’m sitting cheek to cheek with my children in a fast-moving vehicle. I relish those talks that I can’t, nor would want, to escape.
One such conversation stemmed from a self-improvement magazine article that my daughter was reading. “We need to be aware of what we are saying. When we say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and not mean it, we are telling people how to react to us.”
It was an odd statement to hear. Saying “I’m sorry” just means, “I’m sorry.” What is there to react to? Besides, we are programmed to apologize. We probably say those two words a hundred times a day as we go about our business.
Apparently, there is more to those two words than I had given credit. My daughter explained that if you apologize but don’t mean it or use that statement under the wrong pretense, the value of those two words changes. It makes sense and I guess I even knew this. Certainly, people hear me in the right light when I say to them “I’m sorry,” don’t they?
Maja Jovanovic, a Canadian sociologist, once said, “When we needlessly apologize, we end up making ourselves look small or diminish what we are trying to express.”
She tells of a speaking engagement that she attended. Several women experts in their field who have published hundreds of academic articles and dozens of books would lecture on this day. People were known to have traveled for many miles to hear what these women had to say.
The first speaker started off by saying, “I am so sorry, did you have trouble finding this place?” The second speaker started her presentation by saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I could possibly say that would add to this discussion.” And so it was with the third, then the fourth. In fact, out of the 25 panel of speakers, each uttered the same first words before they dove into their content: “I’m sorry.”
Jovanovic said she felt like all of the oxygen was leaving the room. Why would anyone drive miles to hear someone say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I could possibly say that would add to this discussion”? Don’t they know that when a speaker stands before a group and immediately starts apologizing, it causes them to lose significance or even credibility?
A person is late for a meeting and says, “I’m so sorry, I had to …” What might the audience think? Maybe you need to prioritize or plan better. Another person is late for a meeting who says, “Thanks for waiting, let’s proceed.” That audience may view that speaker as in control, confident and capable.
My weekend getaway progressed as I took note of various people that I passed by. As I approached the entrance of a store, I took a step back to allow a woman who was in an obvious hurry enter ahead of me. She turned to me as she rushed by and said, “I’m sorry.” I didn’t hear an apology. What I heard was a command to get out of her way. Maybe even a semblance of lacking respect for anyone other than herself. Perhaps a better choice of words would have been, “Thank you for waiting,” or even, “Excuse me.” After all, she had a right to enter that store at her own pace. Hearing the latter, I’m sure I would have graciously understood that she was focused on something or in a time crunch.
It is different when we have offended or wronged someone. Under those circumstances, we need to apologize. Not just in words, but from the heart. And dare I say you can hear the difference. Additionally, when we say, “I’m sorry, but …” or we don’t convey an element of sympathy, we are hedging our reasoning. Anyone can see through that.
I started thinking about various emails I’ve received. Some would start off saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t answer sooner.” Phone calls received often start off with the caller saying, “I am sorry if I caught you at a bad time.” When the technician says, “I’m sorry I am late,” is he wanting me to agree with him, or to be thankful that he is being considerate of my time?
Final brushstroke: “I’m sorry,” two simple words that are frequently used as nothing more than a comma or a period in a self-serving sentence. Maybe we are using that phrase as a passport to proceed without considering anything about the person. Apologizing can bridge gaps, mend broken relationships, even convey a spirit of compassion. What is it that others hear in you when you say, “I’m sorry”? Are you conveying the message you desire, or causing others to judge you contrary to how you want to be understood?
Readers’ Comments
“When Life Catches Up With The Lyrics We Sang,” published April 4: L. Lunsford wrote, “As a wife of 36 years, I found your words a witness to Truth. Marriage is hard work, but I believe worth the effort. There are times we could have said, ‘We’ve grown apart’ or ‘This work is too hard,’ but we stuck it out and there has been much more good than bad! We are very different people, but that has just broadened our horizons. Keep writing my friend, I enjoy hearing from you each week.”
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