I’m Taking Sorry Back: the Emptiness of Apologies

I fell in love with this beautiful stranger the other day on the M train. There was this rush-hour cubic foot of space that she and I tried to conquer simultaneously. We noticed each other at precisely the same time, withdrew from the territory in question, shared a lightning bolt of direct eye contact, and both muttered, “sorry” at each other. Jinx! The synchronicity of the exchange was so glorious that had I known her for any bit longer than three seconds, I’d have leapt into her lap, taken her by her gorgeous face, and flooded her with every compliment I could think of. The power with which I experienced this New York moment startled me. WTF just happened?

Ten minutes later, off the train, I no longer remembered this angel’s face. But what lingered was the connection I felt with her at that instant. It didn’t feel like either of us was saying, “It’s my fault,” but rather, “It’s not your fault.” Especially because we met over the word that has lately become a feminist taboo: “Sorry.” At some point this summer, my Facebook newsfeed presented what seemed to be a clear consensus: we women apologize too much, and we need to rescue ourselves from it.

Ladies, when exactly did we 86 “sorry?” Was it when comedy darling Amy Schumer released her celebrated “I’m Sorry” sketch, which showed otherwise powerful females on a scientific panel undercut their well-earned confidence with exaggerated use of the phrase? The S-word becomes their anti-mantra, summoning terrible consequences, for which the ladies of the panel automatically—and predictably—apologize.

Or was it with the release of the uplifting viral shampoo commercial? Women rallied around the ad from Pantene, which showed a montage of obsequious limp-haired whisperwomen evolving into assertive halo-headed powerhouses, all by unshackling themselves from apologies. Bold capital letters command you!

The apex for me was the op-ed in the New York Times in which snappy essayist Sloane Crosley described the hyper-apology phenomenon, offering the solution: women ought to stop apologizing, and instead say what we really mean. In “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop,” Crosley illustrated predominantly female knee-jerk apologies. She appealed for women to stop using ironic “assertive apologies,” which we ladies use “when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.”

Crosley also refers to apologies as “extreme prostration,” revealing as much about the writer’s relationship to prostration as it does her relationship to apologies. Neither prostration nor apologizing is inherently an act of self-abnegation. Don’t be duped by etymology: humility is not synonymous with humiliation. Instead, it is possible to adopt a relationship to prostration that feels more like singing a Motown song; the exaltation of the other can do wonders to exalt the self.

Inarguably, her essay hit the spot for many women who feel dis-empowered by their language habits. And the unavoidably popular [and almost instantly hackneyed] hashtag #sorrynotsorry revealed a potentially problematic tension between one of our go-to words, and the meaning we wish it to convey. The catchphrase succeeded at embodying the irony but did not quite transcend it.

So there it is: the epidemic is the proliferation of automatic, inauthentic, and submissive apologies. What is our remedy?

Perhaps the shame the default apologizer feels, when she notices how perfunctorily she introduces her thoughts with “sorry,” comes less from her diffidence, and more from the recognition of her disengagement with her choice of phrasing. Perhaps the frustration an assertive apologizer feels comes less from the indignity of her genuflection, and more from the conflict of its irony. Perhaps the pain of a woman who indiscriminately adopts a submissive tone comes less from acknowledging the worth of others, but more from not honoring her own worth. I worry that the anti-apology movement gives some women yet another behavior to beat themselves up for engaging in.

But something else is missing here: the Schumer sketch, the Crosley essay, and the Pantene commercial share and support the dangerous enthymeme that apologies and other expressions of humility are signs of weakness. This conflation of presence of strength with absence of apology is, in the words of our gaffe-happy Vice President, malarkey. When I find my foot in my mouth, I want more options than just chewing it off. It is essential that we, the collective we—politicians, businesses, lovers, friends, writers, parents, humans—do not abandon the apology. Thus it is necessary that we transform our relationship to it.

Some words are like tofu, and will take on all the emotion and context with which you serve them. If you cook up an apology with self-hate, it is going to taste like self-hate. If you offer the S-word with irony, it is going to taste a little bitter. So knowing all the flavors that a “sorry” can take, consider: what kind of relationship do you want with this word when you use it?

A recipe for a mindful apology will probably demand a generous dose of the yamas satya (truthfulness) and ahimsa (non-violence). For a really sweet apology, why not try out every one of the niyamas too?

Personally, I don’t want my apologies to be filler, the new “um” or “like.” I want to deliver mindful, earnest apologies. I don’t want to debase myself; I want to acknowledge and uplift those around me.  I don’t want to use an apology to absorb blame; I want to apologize to foster connection. And I certainly don’t want to dismiss or belittle the healing properties of anyone’s apologies by associating them with weakness.

Apology and appropriate regret are necessary to develop if only to bounce the memory of wrongs from your meditation party—and then you can really have some fun, doing good. As the godfather of Tibetan Buddhism, Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419), wrote in “The Source of All My Good”:

Grant me then
Ever to be careful,
To stop the slightest
Wrongs of many wrongs we do,
And try to carry out instead
Each and every good
Of the many that we may.

My train angel revealed to me the kind of relationship I want with “sorry”, and the relationship I want with others. I won’t express, “It’s my fault.” I’ll convey, “It’s not your fault.” In fact, when she and I sang sorry together, I felt seen, understood. Empowered. Connected. The feeling mutual.

The solution to the “sorry” situation we’re in is not simply eliminating the word from our vocabulary. It’s changing our relationship to it.