I’m sorry I was late.
I’m sorry to disturb you.
I’m sorry I need your help.
I’m sorry I made you wait for me.
I’ve heard it said that Americans are the sorriest people in the world, and not only because we’d actually consider electing someone like Donald Trump to lead our country. Seriously, every time we turn around we’re saying, “I’m sorry,” about something. But do we really mean it?
There was a post going around Facebook a while back arguing that often when we say we’re sorry what we really mean to say is, “thank you.” And if we said thank you we’d elicit a very different reaction in people.
Think about the last time you said you were sorry to someone. What was it for? Now, I’m not talking about a time you actually hurt someone and apologized for your actions. I’m talking about those little “I’m sorries” that you throw out without really thinking about them.
Imagine you were you late, once again, to meet a friend for coffee. You rush up to her and say, “I’m so sorry I’m late for the third time in a row. I’m just hopeless when it comes to time.”
What’s his likely reaction? I know I’d likely roll my eyes (at least to myself) and be annoyed with you for always being late and wasting my time. But what might happen if instead you said, “Thank you for always being so patient and waiting for me”?
You’ve turned a trite, meaningless apology (let’s face it, you probably said the same thing every time you were late) into a compliment and a show of appreciation of your friend. Which is more likely to be well received? And, more importantly, which really expresses your true feelings? I suspect that you really do mean to express your appreciation of your friend than apologize for your own repeated poor behavior. And your friend would likely be more likely to thank you for the compliment than be even more annoyed with your late self.
I caught myself doing this in a work email recently. A client needed a service I was unable to provide at that time for reasons out of my control and which I was endeavoring to resolve. I caught myself starting to write, “I’m sorry I can’t help you at this time.” I deleted the words and instead wrote, “Thank you for your patience while we get the replacement parts we need to be able to help you.” The latter was really what I meant, especially since I hadn’t done anything for which I needed to apologize. My appreciation of his patience would be, I should think, more likely to result in continued patience rather than impatience at what would rightly be construed as my fault since I’d apologized for it.
By no means am I saying that you should never apologize. Certainly we all do things for which we should be truly sorry, and those apologies should be expressed clearly and meaningfully. But often we would be better off thanking other people for putting up with our sorry selves.
I could say, “I’m sorry for taking up your time today with my ramblings,” but instead I want to say, “Thank you for reading my random thoughts and for spending your precious time with me. Your support means a great deal to me.”