I’m sorry, but please stop saying I’m sorry. Sorry is hurting people and relationships. It should be banished from our language. And I’m not sorry that I feel this way. I’m not even sorry about all those lovely Canadians who, upon reading my words, are deeply horrified. We love our famously apologetic cold-weather friends to the North, but hear us out.
I’m sorry [or apologies, in general] have been used and overused in politics, in families and friendships. The worst abuse may be in love relationships, where “sorry” is used to repair hurt feelings. But it’s got to stop, if we are ever to trust one another. Implicit in requiring an “I’m sorry” is the usually false assertion that the offender intended harm. Apologies undermine the trust bedrock that serves as an essential foundation for any love relationship. The logic is worrying: “If you don’t apologize, I no longer trust that you care about me or my feelings.” An apology doesn’t repair trust, it dooms it to uncertainty.
Currently, our politically-correct society expects apologies when someone is offended. But by making the “offender” apologize, we are extracting confessions under duress. In most cases, the offender didn’t even mean to offend and, if a second chance were granted, might well repeat the offending act. Because most people act in good faith and do not intend to harm others. In the absence of malice or recknessless, why are we justified in expecting an admission of error? In reality, it’s society’s way of punishing the offender. Scientific research by Tyler Okimoto in Australia suggests that those who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who take no action after making a mistake. To apologize is to diminish oneself.
In a society that claims to value authenticity and self-confidence, apologies result in the exact opposite effect. The apologist is being forced to concede that one’s behavior failed to align with personal values and morals. Think about it: someone won’t want to apologize for actions they believe are right and just. Thus when we apologize, we admit that we failed to meet our own values and morals. By refusing to apologize, we preserve our sense of authenticity and self-worth, as well as the strength of our morals. Rather than demand an “I’m sorry”, society can go for a win-win with “I acknowledge your position.”
Yes, acknowledgement is really what should be paramount. Where two persons have “bumped”, rather than demand the diminishing apologize, both parties should recognize that an action offended another and make sure that both people have been heard. Where bad faith is alleged, society has tools for resolving conflicts. But in in the absence of bad faith, there should be no need for anything more than acknowledgement such as the ones listed below:
“Thank you for letting me know how you feel.”
“What can we do to resolve your concerns?”
“I will try to be more sensitive to your feelings.”
“That must be really hard for you.”
“It certainly wasn’t my intent. I’ll do better next time.”
“While we can’t always agree, with can always respect another’s view.”
These are all more constructive responses that do not require admissions of wrong doing, yet reflect acknowledgement of a problem and commit to finding a resolution. The last one is perhaps the most potent, as it focuses upon gratitude, rather than contrition. You’ve taken a negative situation and turned it into a positive one by thanking the person who has raised a concern. Just as the improvization world lives by :”Yes…..and”, we life improvizers need to follow that positive lead: “Thanks…..and”
When social scientists examined apologies, they found something unexpected. “I’m sorry” doesn’t really do much. What is most effective is:
- Explanation (if asked) of what went wrong.
- Taking responsibility.
- An offer of repair.
- Request for forgiveness.
If those steps are sincere and accompanied by integrity (e.g. done fact-to-face), they are far more powerful than a contrite “I’m sorry”. In fact, the S-word need not even be uttered.