Before I taught mediation, I had no qualms about throwing out an “I’m sorry” whenever the words came to mind. During training I always included a section on apologies, because they can be an amazingly powerful part of the mediation process. In anticipation of this section, I was discussing philosophical perspectives on apologies. And then my colleague informed me that he never says the words “I’m sorry.” I was flabbergasted. That just seemed absurd.
Later, that (older male) colleague informed me that as a younger female, I particularly needed to be cautious about being so free with apologies — in the legal/mediation field, it could make me seem weak or not deserving of respect.
My initial reaction, that I actually held on to for awhile, was to absolutely reject this notion. I’m the one who determines what power I have and what power I give away. It doesn’t matter what other people think. Since that exchange, I’ve thought a lot about what saying “I’m sorry” means to both the speaker and the receiver.
One night at 3 a.m., I was lying awake in bed pondering the scheduling of my son’s seventh birthday party and having imaginary conversations with people in my head. (What? Doesn’t everyone do that?) His birthday always falls right around the end of the school year. This year, due to a confluence of circumstances, it was looking like the best time to schedule his party was Father’s Day. In my mental composition of the message that I would send with the invitation, I came up with the phrase, “I’m sorry, I know some of you won’t be able to make it because it’s Father’s Day, but his birthday falls at an awkward time of the year.”
And then I caught myself.
Did I just apologize for when my son was born?! That’s messed up. And what am I teaching my son?
I decided to start paying better attention to when I want to say “I’m sorry.” The other day, I was checking out at the craft store. The cashier had rung me up, and I asked if I could give her my frequent customer number. She tried to add it, the cash register crashed, she had to call a manager, and we ended up having to switch registers. While we were waiting for the new register to start up, I resisted the impulse to utter the words. As I was standing there struggling with the urge, I thought about what was going on.
Part of it was definitely social nicety/politeness — it just seemed like the thing to say. It’s no fun when technology at work flubs up. Then I thought about what I was feeling; why did I want to say the words? Beyond the social niceties, I felt responsible for making her day harder — for adding to her work. I felt like I needed to own the responsibility for that. But did I? Really? Isn’t it part of the store’s process for people to use their frequent shopper cards? How unusual is it for technologies to muck up? To have to switch to a different register?
By this time, the new register was working, I was rung up — with my customer card — we wished each other a nice day, and I went on my way. Our interaction seemed none the worse for my not saying the words, and I went on with my day without adding to my weight of responsibilities — adding burdens for which I decided to be responsible. I’m sure the staff person never thought of me after I walked out the door, but I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot.
The words might be blithe and unthinking, but in speaking them, I was reaching out to take responsibility for things that were troubling, problematic, to be regretted — when it wasn’t right for me to bear the responsibility. And that had become a habit. I decided that for myself and for my family, I would change that. From now on, I’m going to pause and think before I say the words “I’m sorry.” It’s not my intent to stop saying it, but I want to stop giving myself unnecessary baggage to carry around. And I think in saying “I’m sorry” less often, it is going to mean more.
OK, your turn: Do you ever think about the words “I’m sorry”? Or if I’ve overthought this, is there anything you’ve overthought that’s brought about a change in how you behave?