I’ll admit it—I don’t generally set a lot of goals for myself. I live in Minnesota, after all, the land of the naturally above average. But I have set a big goal for myself: to stop saying “I’m sorry.” I blame my Minnesota roots. It didn’t even occur to me that this was a thing until I saw a mug at the “I Like Me” store booth at—where else?—the Minnesota State Fair. It was a simple mug with the shape of Minnesota and the words “I’m Sorry” written across the front. It was a forehead-slapping moment.
Here in the North Star state, we have much to apologize for. We apologize for these harsh Minnesota winters. Who would willingly subject themselves to subzero weather and live in a climate that keeps us hidden from our neighbors for half of the year? And then there is the mosquito, the unofficial state bird, that attacks any exposed flesh for the three nice months of the year.
And we’re not even as nice as our moniker “Minnesota Nice” would suggest. I was shocked to hear that non-natives have trouble breaking into our tight web of social and familial connections. Of course, I felt bad about that.
We Minnesotans have perfected the art of passive-aggressiveness. We have trouble being direct and assertive, for fear of confronting people; we couch our behavior behind the cloak of “I’m sorry.” When someone budges in line at a store, we say, “I’m sorry, but I think I was next.” Or when the waiter gets our order wrong: “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered.” We’re not sorry! We just don’t want to come off as too brash, too–might I say–East Coast.
But it’s more than just being from Minnesota, the land of perpetual guilt. Growing up Catholic adds to this sorry state. I remember preparing for my first confession as a child. While I was not perfect, I was stumped when it came to confession, something that I had to tell the priest I was truly sorry for. Without being able to come up with anything egregious, I may have said that I was mean to my brother. The memories are fuzzy now. The truth was that if I was mean to my brother, he probably had it coming. He usually did.
We’ve all encountered people who fall over themselves unnecessarily apologizing for things. These are people who feel bad about everything. At least I’m not that bad. I think.
Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of the “apology.” I apologize when I have to ask for something and I’m afraid the person will say no.
I apologize when I think I’m bothering someone. “I’m sorry to call so late…” even when it’s not really that late.
I apologize in order to ingratiate myself to others. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier…” when I knowingly procrastinated.
I apologize sometimes to spare someone’s feelings, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
I say “I’m sorry” as an imprecise verbal filler, as in “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your skirt is tucked into your tights.”
I have said, “I’m sorry to have to ask… “ “I’m sorry you were caught in the middle of that… “ “I’m sorry to be a bother….”
I’ve had to stop myself from starting emails with “I’m sorry, but…” as a buffer to break bad news.
Maybe apologizing is an effort to be perfect. Often these words simply come out of my mouth because I don’t want to cause offense and I fear falling out of people’s favor.
Alternatively, we’ve all heard the “non-apology” apology. “I’m sorry IF you were offended…”
Then there are the insincere apologies of children, the sarcastic “I’m ssooorrrrryy,” we force them to make to classmates or siblings. But if I say I’m sorry and I’m really not, isn’t that the same thing?
Why have I been doing this all these years? Can it really be that I am afraid of offending people? That I’m afraid of what people may think of me if I offend them, even unintentionally? Yes. And yes. There it is. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I should be a little braver in my everyday life. That I should stand up for my true feelings instead of acting and reacting the way that I think people expect me to. Or in a way that risks putting me in disfavor.
I’m sorry that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” all these years without giving it a second thought. Now when I find myself composing an email and I have more time for reflection, I delete the words “I’m sorry” from the beginning of an email. And in speaking to people, I’ve stopped myself from saying, “I’m sorry” when it’s not appropriate.
If I only say I’m sorry for things that I am truly sorry for, doesn’t that make my apologies more sincere and meaningful?
I would like to try the tactic of replacing the words “thank you” for “sorry,” as the comic artist Yao Xiao illustrates in her comic strip Baopu #15. She suggests, for instance, instead of apologizing for being late, say “thank you for waiting for me” or when you feel like you’re rambling, not to apologize but to thank the person who is listening to you. It’s a subtle verbal shift in words, but a seismic mental one.
I am not sorry about not saying sorry any more.
Brenda van Dyck is an occasional guest blogger on WordSisters. To learn more about her or our other guest bloggers, click on Guests above.