I've Been Apologizing to all the Wrong People

I had a middle school teacher who would count how often her students used the word “like” during oral presentations. If memory serves, female students were called out for this more often than our male counterparts. With Beverly Hills 90210 and Saved by the Bell ruling pop culture, can you blame us? It like, wasn’t even our fault. 

While this academic exercise embarrassed me, it also made a lasting impression that has informed me to this day. (Though I can still fall prey to the powerful snares of like.)

In 2017, I wonder if perhaps a more insidious epidemic isn’t overusing the word ‘like,’ but instead ‘sorry.’

I recently employed Mrs. Mucklevin’s experiment to gauge just how often I apologize to people over the course of an average day.


Caveat: I qualify apologies as ones made without reason. I would never want to discourage anyone from a genuine apology. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than the potential healing a reparation can bring about. Considering the subjectivity when determining whether an apology is warranted, so I made a list of how I defined the type of apologies eligible for my experiment. Here is my summary based solely on personal experience and observation. ( If you want research you're following the wrong writer) :

There are three primary situations during which I am likely to blurt out an unwarranted apology:

-        To qualify or soften a “no.”

-        To end a potential conflict or fight.

-        To appear polite to complete strangers.

There are also three (closely related) central categories of people to whom I apologize:

-        Significant Others + Family members.

-        Friends + Acquaintances.

-        Complete and total strangers.


Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up, shall we?

As for complete and total strangers and the appearance of politeness, we simply must stop. Nobody likes a rude person, but incessantly apologizing to strangers you bump on the street is fruitless and self-defeating. I live in a city of 8.5 million people, I will unwittingly bump into someone, and that someone will— intentionally or not — aggressively push into me. These are not situations that warrant an apology unless real harm is done and you’ve caused something bigger than the occasional subway shuffle. 

During my day self-examination, I uttered out three heartfelt apologies to fellow straphangers only to be met with bewilderment. Worse, one fellow commuter had already out of the train, paying me and our incident no mind at all. This is an easy one to eliminate from the apology arsenal. Let’s all be adults and assume we are not trying to cause bodily harm as we go about our day.

I think my core tendency to apologize lays in my relationship with my family and partner. Picture this: It’s 6:30 pm, after a long day of work, you dig deep for the wherewithal to make or buy or order a meal for all these people who always seem to be hungry around this time. Your partner lets a cutting remark slip. It’s warranted, but more than you are prepared to deal with at this moment. You begin arguing. “Sorry, it’s fine. Forget I said anything.” I can be far from fine and still say this to my husband if I want to avoid a fight and don’t have the bandwidth to address a long-running pattern or theme in our relationship. Why the apology? (He started it!) Perhaps stating, “This is worth a conversation, but now isn’t the best time. Can we come back to this later?”

Same with friends. I consider quality friendships among life’s greatest gifts, but that doesn’t mean my relationships are without conflict. (I actually have a friend who doesn’t think SVU is the superior franchise of the Law and Order Empire.) Occasionally, an attempt to clarify or explain can lead to heated conversation.

When I feel misunderstood and can’t quite access the ability to engage in a mature discussion, I obstruct any progress in the conversation by saying I am sorry. “I shouldn’t have brought it up, sorry,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” These statements are not genuine and I didn’t do anything wrong. (Nor did she.)  The new script will include deep breaths and “I might need more time to gather my thoughts to help you understand what I’m saying,” or “Perhaps you just don’t know Olivia Benson like I do.”


If saying sorry is the ailment du jour, saying no is a closely related symptom.  We really like to soften the blow of declining an invitation with a hard and firm no, don’t we? I’ve even pushed off a new no’s by saying maybe just to buy myself time.

Guess what?We can feel bad that we can’t attend or help with something but we don’t need to apologize. I had a hard time coming up with an alternative script for this one, but here’s what I am going to test out next time I’d rather not do something: “I’m not able to make it to your party, but appreciate the invitation!” or “I am unable to help on your committee at this time – wish you all the best as you pursue fundraising for the Seniors trip abroad!” Both of these responses end with a positive thought and feel better than simply responding with a flat “no.”

Let’s have our yes’s be yes, and our no’s be no, and not apologize for any of them, what do you say?

At the end of my little experiment, I looked at the notes app of my phone and concluded I do a lot of apologizing. It can be a weird filler that I insert mindlessly, or worse, an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable feeling in the moment.

I queried my husband and asked him to reflect on his apologizing M.O. Not surprisingly, he didn’t do it very often save for the occasional misunderstanding at work, (“Sorry, I wasn’t clear on the expectation) and even admitted that he had a difficult time saying it when he did. We are just two people but I suspect we reflect a good portion of the population in terms of gender and propensity to apologize.

I felt strange after reading his text. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong but had the distinct feeling that I was missing the larger meaning of this act of self-discovery. I no longer wanted to track my apologies or consider the whys and the whens of my actions.

So I did what many of us do when we need some external wisdom to check against our internal quests for truth: I scrolled Instagram. The very first post I saw screamed out what I was straining to whisper myself.


 (photo via Instagram @laura_mckowen )