Every Time I Said "Sorry" for a Month
A few months ago, I was quite mean to my brother Max. Of all days, it was Yom Kippur (aka the “Day of Atonement”). I had a big deadline coming up, and I was stressed. That, and our car’s inspection was past due, which we’d only realized from the multiple tickets we’d found on our windshield that week. Max had tried and failed to get the car inspected (we needed an appointment). He called me on his way home, interrupting my frazzled skimming of academic papers, to ask if I could try to get the car inspected somewhere else later that day, and I was difficult and unkind. I said “yes” in the least charitable way while also asserting that I didn’t have time to do it. But I would do it. But it would be a huge burden.
Optimal car-sharing behavior through and through.
I texted him later to apologize, and apologized again when I next saw him. For context, he was fasting that day and I wasn’t. Here’s an excerpt from our texts:
Me: “I’m sorry I took out some of my stress on you earlier.”
Max: “I understand I was also in a bad mood from the fast so that didn’t help.”
Me: “I’m sure it didn’t. Given my blood sugar, I should have been the one to keep my cool.”
If you exclude the part where we had to pay hundreds of dollars to repair our car before it would pass inspection, everything was fine after that.
One of my favorite concepts in psychology is rupture and repair. It’s how psychologists refer to the process of hurting someone and/or getting hurt (rupture), and then working through the hurt and making amends to regain trust in each other (repair). I think repairing ruptures is a fundamental human skill. Ruptures are inevitable. You can’t love people without causing hurt and getting hurt. When done well, rupture and repair is a process that can actually strengthen relationships. Wanting to explore the role of rupture and repair in my life, I decided to keep a record of every time I said the word, “sorry” for a month.
Before I get to the methods, I’ll share some of my initial hypotheses. There’s this widely-recognized cultural idea that some people, especially women, apologize way too much. These people might say “sorry” when they really mean “thank you” or when they just feel self-conscious for taking up space in a social situation. And, these people “should” say “sorry” less. “Sorry” harms their ability to be taken seriously. In essence, “sorry” is a problem that women have.
I thought I would come to some version of this conclusion from my experiment. I thought I would realize that, some proportion of the time, “sorry” actually undermines me and isn’t the word I want to use. But after noticing and thinking about “sorry” for months now, that’s not what I concluded. I concluded that many of the cultural conversations we’re having about “sorry” are too simplistic and not cognizant enough of the reality of social dynamics and power.
For one month and two days, I kept a note on my phone where I recorded every time I said the word “sorry.”
I excluded two specific use cases:
- The “I’m sorry that happened to you” use case – e.g. “I’m sorry you had to pay hundreds of dollars to get your car repaired”
- The “sorry?” that asks someone to repeat themself because I didn’t hear what they said
Otherwise, every sorry was added to the note. I know I missed a few instances of “sorry” that I noticed but couldn’t write down right away and later forgot what I’d said. Of course, I have no idea how many sorry’s I didn’t notice, but I became very attuned to the word “sorry.” Although it’s been months since I finished data collection for this project, I believe I still consciously notice pretty much every time I say or hear the word “sorry.” During the data collection, I noticed “sorry” no matter who said it. I even started writing down some of the more interesting or archetypal uses of “sorry” by other people.
Exploring the Basics of the Data Set
My final data set contained 73 apologies, which means I apologized a little over twice a day on average. Note that in this post I use the word “apology” to refer to any time I said “sorry,” whatever the meaning of the word in that particular context.
I started out by categorizing each apology in three basic ways: who I was apologizing to, the setting where the apology took place, and what I was apologizing for.
Here’s a pie chart for each result1:
I apologized most in my home, in public, and over text.
I apologized most frequently to close friends, followed by strangers. Interesting contrast. It would be great to standardize these values by dividing by the amount of time I spent interacting with each group of people, but alas, I don’t have that data.
I most frequently apologized for being in someone’s way or entering their personal space, then for lack of response, then for interrupting.
Some types of people are highly correlated with some reasons for apologizing, such as apologizing to strangers for being in their space. However, I apologized to close friends about a whole variety of things (10 categories). Same, fascinatingly, for people I was on a date with or planning to go on a date with (4 categories). In general, dates were people I barely knew. The third group I apologized to for a variety of things (5 categories) is coworkers. I’ll come back to this.
First, let’s go through some prototypical examples of common apologies I gave:
- The Personal Space Apology: I said “sorry” after dancing back and forth trying to walk past someone in CVS. This is by far my most common apology variation, and usually happened in public with a stranger.
- The Didn’t Text Back Apology: “Hi I’m sorry I didn’t respond to this!” These are texts often sent to close friends.
- The Interruption Apology: “Sorry, I totally interrupted you.” This apology takes place in person, on the phone, or over zoom, to pretty much anyone.
What does “sorry” mean?
Since I’ve been working on this project, I’ve asked a handful of people what they mean when they say “sorry,” and I’ve received a fascinating array of responses.
One person told me they try to only say “sorry” if they would do something differently next time. I apologized regularly for things I likely couldn’t have done differently next time, like bumping into someone in a crowded space. I also apologized for things I could do differently but I probably wouldn’t. For example, I texted, “Oh yeah sorry I still haven’t looked at it!” to my roommate after she’d sent a link to a toilet paper subscription she recommended we use. The truth is, I knew I hadn’t looked into the toilet paper subscription and I chose not to prioritize it. Does this mean I wasn’t sorry? Was I saying sorry for the reality that the toilet paper subscription wasn’t my priority? Was I just recognizing that she had been inconvenienced by my actions, whether I could or would act differently?
I started thinking that sorry’s could be plotted on an x-y plane where the x-axis represents the preventability of whatever it is that is being apologized for, and the y-axis represents the harm or potential harm it caused. Since we need a third dimension, let’s have color denote how much the apologizer really would change their behavior next time.
Now, we can plot some specific apologies. Here are 6:
A. “Oh yeah sorry I still haven’t looked at it!” - text to roommate about toilet paper subscription
B. “Ah! Sorry!” - almost closed the car door on my friend
C. “Sorry, the recycling truck is here.” - about loud background noise during a Zoom appointment
D. “Excuse me, sorry, I’m just going to sneak behind you, sorry, small space” - in a bookstore with my walker trying to get past someone
E. “Sorry about that” - after saying something technical to a coworker that they didn’t understand during a Zoom meeting
F. “Sorry.” - all the bowls were dirty so there wasn’t a clean one to use when I was cooking with a friend
Here they are plotted:
Language is complicated. A word can mean many different things in many different contexts, many of them non-literal, and we can interpret its meaning even if we can’t articulate it. “Sorry” definitely doesn’t always mean, “I regret taking this action” the way I use it, nor does it seem to mean that for other people.
Here are a few of the main meanings I interpret:
“Sorry” as Deference
On a Zoom call led by my manager’s manager’s manager, a White man, last week, he said “sorry” five times in fifty minutes. For example, he said, “Sorry, my computer’s frozen,” and “I’m not following you there. I’m sorry, [coworkers name], maybe try that again?” He doesn’t come off as insecure. He comes off as having curiosity and humility. In fact, I doubt anyone else noticed he ever said the word “sorry.” In this environment, I think “sorry” serves to demonstrate his humility and esteem for us, his subordinate coworkers. “Sorry” shows deference, in contrast to his institutional superiority.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the audiences to whom I apologized for the widest variety of things were coworkers and dates. These are social relationships that are more formal and less familiar. Apologizing for a variety of things likely reflects a norm of apologizing more in general. Here, “sorry” maintains formality and respect.
Weeks ago, a man on the subway went to flip down the seat next to the one I was sitting in. I leaned away from him so he’d have enough space. As he flipped down the seat he said, “sorry.” Of course, he wasn’t saying he regretted his actions. He wasn’t actually “sorry.” I think he was saying, “I recognize that I am inconveniencing you in a way that could be interpreted as exerting power over you, and I am clarifying that that’s not my intention and restoring the balance of power between us.”
“Sorry” as Insurance
“Sorry” can be used strategically to diminish one’s social power in relation to others, but I think it can also be used in almost the opposite way. A female coworker on a Zoom call interrupted the flow of conversation to bring the group back from a tangent, “sorry, can I just bring us back to [topic]?” It was a moment of assertiveness and leadership. And I believe that by slipping in a “sorry,” my coworker protected herself from social consequences. You’ve probably heard that the same assertive behavior interpreted as positive when displayed by men can be viewed quite negatively when displayed by women.
It can be very powerful to nod to social conventions before you break them.
When people say, “women shouldn’t apologize so much. They should be more assertive,” they’re ignoring the realities of gender and power. I think “sorry” can bring people who are part of marginalized or stereotyped groups places where they otherwise might not be able to go. There can be power in “sorry.”
“Sorry” as Seeking Reassurance
“Sorry, here I am rambling,” I said to a close friend after telling a long story on the phone. It was a way of recognizing that my friend had given me care and attention. To an extent, it was probably also a way of verifying that it was okay that I’d just spoken about myself for so long.
I’ve heard the advice to not say sorry when you really mean, “thank you.” But I think in these instances if we really just meant “thank you,” we’d say it. I think we mean, “thank you,” and also “was this okay?” or “were you listening?” or “did I just bore you to death?”
When we are vulnerable, including when we ask something of someone else like their care and attention, it’s natural to want to know, am I being judged? Did this vulnerability result in greater closeness or in rejection? Maybe it’s a good idea to learn to express vulnerability and then live in the vulnerability of not knowing exactly how it was received. However, I think it’s also important to have the self-compassion to let ourselves want and seek reassurance. Arguably, saying “sorry” isn’t the best way to actually get reassurance, but it can be a non-threatening bid for reassurance, and that can be okay.
It’s also important to say, “thank you.” I think we can make room for both.
“Sorry” as Closeness (?)
There’s one use of “sorry” in this data set that I can’t really explain. The vast majority of apologies that I said to close friends were to one particular very dear friend. I found myself saying “sorry” to her for things I wouldn’t have in other close friendships. I don’t think I ever would have noticed were it not for this project, but when I was around her during the data collection I kept having to take my phone out to write down an apology that I’d just uttered. I have no idea why this is the norm between us. It completely breaks the “more formal and less familiar” rule of frequent use of the word “sorry.” I can think of two possible explanations. The first is that different relationships just have different norms and ours has the norm of using the word “sorry” regularly. The second is that potentially “sorry” can be used to maintain closeness in certain contexts. It’s not a fully developed idea, but if you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.
“Sorry” as Repair
It’s striking, now that I’ve analyzed this whole data set as a way to examine the role of rupture and repair in my life, one thing these apologies aren’t really examples of is real repair. I don’t think I hurt anyone more than slightly in any of these 73 instances when I said, “sorry.”
I commit more grave transgressions than those reflected in this data set regularly, like being actively cruel to my brother about the car inspection. Sometimes I know I’ve messed up, but I think that most times, it’s thoughtless choices or words whose impacts we’re inattentive to that hurt other people the most. We might see at the moment of rupture that we’ve hurt someone. Or, if we’re lucky, the person might tell us. And then, there’s really no alternative to the word “sorry” in conveying that we’ve learned something and we want to make things right.
Reflecting on my most frequent uses of “sorry”
The Personal Space Apology
Unless I did something thoughtless like suddenly walk backwards in public, I don’t really mean “I’m sorry” when I say “sorry” in this context. It’s an inevitable reality of being in public that we end up in other people’s way. I say “sorry” because it conveys deference and intention not to dominate and I don’t feel that there’s an adequate alternative in the English language. “Excuse me” means something different and always feels a little like, “please get out of my way” instead of “I recognize that we’re in each other’s spaces.” I personally do not see a problem in using “sorry” in this way.
The Didn’t Text Back Apology
I could have told you before this study that the thing I most frequently say “sorry” for and mean it as an actual apology is not responding in a timely manner to texts/emails/Slack messages/paper airplanes sent in through my bedroom window. Knowing this and continuing to use “sorry” in this way regularly, I asked myself why I wasn’t getting better about this. I have a few answers. In some instances, it’s just not my priority to be good at responding to texts. In other instances, I forget to respond to something that’s important or someone who’s shared something vulnerable with me or someone who’s trying to make a plan with me. Then it’s a more harmful mistake, and yet I still do this over and over. One problem might be that the better you are at responding to texts, the more you receive. I haven’t found a good strategy to completely stop accidentally ignoring texts, but if you have one that helps you, feel free to send it my way.
The Interruption Apology
Similar to The Personal Space Apology, I say “sorry” when I’ve blatantly interrupted someone despite it being a small and regular error because I want to convey that I recognize that I’ve spoken over someone and I intend to give them ample space to speak.
When saying “sorry” can be harmful
In general, I don’t feel that The Personal Space Apology or The Interruption Apology do more harm than good in my interpersonal relationships. However, sometimes I think saying “sorry” can send harmful messages. It can be important not to say “sorry” in instances where it would be harmful for someone to think you regret a certain behavior. I think about this regularly when I’m out with my walker. Walkers are somewhat wide, so out in public sometimes people have to move, say, their chair for me to fit past them. It might feel natural for me to say, “sorry” to signal my recognition of their effort and my desire not to exert power over them. But I’m not sorry that I’m there with my walker and I don’t want anyone to think I am. The problem is the space we’re in not being accessible. If I’m not paying attention and I bump someone with my walker or I roll over their foot, that’s a different story and I’ll apologize. Otherwise, I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t want to signal to anyone that I think I did.
If you think your use of “sorry” is undermining you in some way and want to use it less, that’s great and I fully support you in that endeavor. If you think there are instances when you’re not truly sorry but you want to continue to use the word “sorry” anyway, that’s great, too. Overall, I think it’s important to challenge the notion that stereotypical “women’s communication” is inherently less effective than supposed “men’s communication.” Different social groups use language in different ways. Stereotypes and prejudice can lead people to argue that the group with the most power uses language in a way that’s inherently better. We should all be afforded the freedom to use language however we feel best expresses ourselves.
Here’s a few of my main conclusions from this project:
- “Sorry” is said in everyday conversation in ways we barely even hear.
- Men use “sorry” regularly and with many different meanings, as do women.
- “Sorry” doesn’t have to literally mean “I am sorry I did this,” to be potentially worth saying. People understand “sorry” to denote many different nuanced meanings.
- Sometimes I think it’s important not to say “sorry.” Other times, I think it’s important not to tell people not to say “sorry.”
However often you say the word, “sorry,” and whatever you mean by it, I hope you’re always learning how to have better and more meaningful repairs.
Say what you will about the downsides of pie charts, but we all know how to interpret them.↩︎