Have you heard the latest controversy over the phrase "I'm sorry"? Some folks are worried that saying "I'm sorry" when we haven't done anything wrong means that we are taking blame for things we didn't do and handling relationships in unhealthy ways. Is that really true? Should we teach our children to stop saying "I'm sorry" and replace the phrase with something else?
Barbie is Worried
The other day, someone in my Facebook news feed shared episode 61 of Barbie's vlog. Apparently, Barbie has a vlog. Apparently she has taken on the roll of online relationship coach. And apparently, when you are a perpetual twenty-year-old with a biologically impossible body, that makes you the most ideal person to speak to young girls about healthy relationships.
She said that her friends and her sisters have been asking her to do a video about "sorry". (Suddenly I felt like I was watching the blooper reel to A Bug's Life. How meta.)
Barbie is concerned that we apologize for all kinds of things, like when someone else bumps into us, or when we have to ask the waiter to reheat our food, or when we get really excited or feel down.
She says that responding with "'Sorry' is a learned reflex and every time we do it, we take away from our self-confidence." It is especially a problem with girls, she fears.
Sorry and Self-Confidence
Can women and girls (and men and boys) struggle with self-confidence? Absolutely.
Can we find it uncomfortable or challenging to point out a problem with our restaurant order, or share our emotions without apology? Definitely.
And is it unhealthy to handle conflict or awkward situations by taking on blame for something we didn't do? For sure.
But is the word "sorry" the problem?
For ages and ages (and in languages other than English) people have been using phrases like ...
Pardon me, ...
Excuse me, ...
... in order to politely get someone's attention, ask someone to repeat something that you didn't hear, request that someone move out of your way, or to correct someone who is mistaken.
Nobody ever watched the Grey Poupon commercial and thought that the gentleman looking for fine mustard was struggling with issues of self-confidence because he phrased his request, "Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"
Are we to understand that not only was he apologetic for wanting mustard, he believed that his request was so heinous, he was in need of pardon? How troubling.
Is Self-Confidence Passive-Aggressive?
Barbie suggests that instead of saying "I'm sorry, but could you reheat this food," you should hand your plate to the waiter and say "Thank you for reheating this food."
Maybe it's because I'm a southerner, but if one of my kids handed back his bowl of oatmeal and said, "Thank you for reheating this" it might not go over too well. Self-confidence and deference to the feelings or circumstances of others need not be mutually exclusive.
I'm all in favor of being intentional, taking stock of why we say what we say, and using words that better express our true attitude. But we can't simply disregard social customs, assuming that everyone around us will understand our phrases as we intend them, when other expressions have a longstanding history as commonplace.
Sorry, Not Sorry?
The fact of the matter is that saying "I'm sorry" as a preface to an interruption, request, or correction, is more than just an odd turn of phrase or, as Barbie says, a "learned reflex" which eats away at our self-confidence. The word "sorry" comes from the same root as the word "sorrow" and we use it in all kinds of contexts - from deeply serious to mildly distressing - to express sympathy, not necessarily with any admission of blame.
We might say "I'm sorry you lost your new pen" to express sympathy without suggesting that we are to blame for the loss. In the same way we can say to a waiter "I'm sorry, but could we get some more napkins?" to express that we sympathize with his busy job, without believing that it's wrong for us to request the napkins.
As I mentioned above, English is not the first language to employ a word that can suggest both repentance and sympathy in various contexts. The Hebrew word "nacham" is used over a hundred times in the Old Testament. It's origins literally mean "sigh" or "breathe strongly" but by implication suggest pity, sorrow, or even repentance.
Below are some examples from the King James Bible. I've emboldened the word or phrase that is a translation of "nacham":
And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.
Too Much Sorry ... Or Too Little
It's odd to me that we assume that the word "sorry" (which simply means "sorrowing") necessarily involves guilt, blame, or offence, when phrases like "pardon me" or "excuse me" (which seem to directly suggest a need for forgiveness) are comfortable common expressions that have not (yet) been connected with self-confidence deficits.
Perhaps the problem is not that we say the word "sorry" too much. Perhaps the problem is that we fail to make distinctions between the blame-free expression of sympathy, "I'm sorry you lost your pen" and the blame-admitting apology, "I'm sorry I took your pen".
Or, to go one step further, perhaps our apologies (actual admissions of blame) have become so watered-down and tepid that they sound very little different from a casual expression of sympathy. If we handle relationship-wounding offenses by tossing off a flat "Sorry," then is it any wonder that we contemplate whether we are confessing deep sins to the waiter when we ask "Sorry, can I get another Dr. Pepper?"
Courteous Requests and Sincere Apologies
Certainly we should take the time to talk with our children about the meanings of the word "sorry". We should talk about the awkward and uncomfortable moments that arise in conversation and how they can be handled with grace, but also dignity and a clear conscience.
But, perhaps even more importantly, we should also talk with our children about how to apologize sincerely. If I had to make a wager, I'd guess that - all circumstances considered - we likely use the word "sorry" less than we should. Next week, we'll zoom in and take a close look at one of the trickiest situations in which to teach our children to say, "I'm sorry": accidental hurt or injury. (The next post is live now. Read it here.)
Do you agree with Barbie? Do we need to stop saying "I'm sorry"? Or do we need to work to better understand what it means in context?