I’m sorry . . .

by Pari

A couple of months after I’d signed up for Netflix streaming this summer, my kids started watching old episodes of Nanny 911. I find the show strangely addicting. Families with screaming, violent, ill-behaved children – with stressed, angry, despairing and/or clueless parents – receive a week-long visit from a no-nonsense older Mary Poppins and in short order almost all becomes right with the world.

It’s a lovely formula.

What strikes me in these episodes is how little emphasis is placed on saying “I’m sorry.” That’s certainly not how I was raised. Back when I was a whippersnapper, an apology was often the only goal of any “learning moment.” And those learning moments often came after a back-handed slap or belted spanking.

“Say you’re sorry.”


“Say it now!”


“No dinner for you until you apologize.”

“I’m not hungry!”  

Commence slamming of doors, sobbing . . .

Then, after years and years of always fighting to be in the right, of not giving an inch, something changed.  I’m not sure quite when, but sometime in my early 20s, I realized an uttered “I’m sorry,” like golden glittery fairy dust, could cast its magic to diffuse pressure or deflect negative energy off of my back.

Apologizing became easy . . . second nature. Convenient.

Lately I’ve noticed how often I apologize and the many those apologies can take:

expedient apologies
spoken for quick response so that  I can get on with whatever needs to be done:  “I’m sorry you don’t like peas. Eat them anyway.”

social apologies
“Oh. I’m sorry.” These, like the ones above, are meant to help a group function. Women often use them in work situations to move a project forward rather than getting locked in a contest of wills, or, as is often the case – pissing matches.

irritated apologies
often in the form of defense –“I’m sorry you don’t like fiction.”

implied apologies
“Oh. Really? I didn’t know that.” Often these have an air of, “gee, I was too dumb to spot that fact.”

Sympathetic apologies
“I’m so sorry this has happened to you.”

heart-wrenching sincere apologies
there’s no stock example for these since they are sincere and utterly unique each time they’re spoken.

Here’s the light bulb that went off in my brain the other day:  I think that when people get into the habit of apologizing quickly and often, there’s an unhealthy side-effect. They create an unexpected mythology about themselves. They start to believe they’re broken, that there’s a fundamental error deep inside.

Constant apologizers embrace ambient guilt without even realizing it. They become the kids that turn every time the lifeguard blows a whistle, even if they’re sitting on the grass innocently eating mustard-slathered hot dogs.

Right now, of course, I’m examining how I’ve used apologies and apologizing in my life. By writing about it today, I am not seeking sympathy. Instead, I’d love to discuss this topic  with the ‘Rati community.

Have you ever thought about the role of apologizing in your own life?
Are there other kinds of apologies than those I mentioned? What are they?
Do you buy into the idea that too much apologizing can morph into an unintended sense of guilt?

32 thoughts on “I’m sorry . . .

  1. Reine

    Hi Pari,

    I think you're right about the unintended guilt collection. When I was younger my friends and acquaintances frequently criticized me for apologizing too much. I couldn't hear myself doing it, but I had to believe them, because so many called me on it. It was difficult to work out the whys and what fors, because I was so unaware.

    I think it worked itself out over time as I became more aware in general. Discovering where it came from came much later as I realized how defensive I was and that an apology was an attempt to ward off parental attacks that had long before disappeared. So for me it was something very old that had come to feed my insecurity.

  2. Pari Noskin

    Thank you for sharing this. I hadn't made the direct connection between apologizing and insecurity — but they're linked in the same way that that strange unearned guilt can be. You've given me more to think about. I'm also watching apologizing in my own children precisely for the reasons you mentioned.

    And I thought of another kind of apology — the insincere one:
    the "I'm sorry, but . . . "
    Usually it's followed by something that shows, with little doubt, that the person isn't really sorry at all.

    My only question with that one is if it, too, is a magnet for guilt?

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Dashed-off, unmeant apologies are more irritating than no apology at all, but sometimes all it takes to placate is a reasonably sincere "I'm sorry". And as everybody knows, once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy.

    I'd love to follow the Leroy Jethro Gibbs school – "Never apologise, it's a sign of weakness" but sadly I often say "sorry" when it's not remotely my fault. Hmm, thanks for this, Pari – I shall have to reevaluate my apology-decision-making paradigm …

    Another nice one concerns 'respect'. I actually used this one in a book:

    '"With the greatest respect," I said, always a nice phrase to use when you intend to speak without any…'

  4. Sarah W

    I use Soothing Apologies at work. I suppose they're a kind of hybrid Expedient and Social, although they *sound* Sympathetic (and may be so).

    These apologies might be sincere or not, and the issue may indeed be my fault (or the fault of the library in general) or not, but the goal is to smooth the ruffled feathers of the irritated patron.

    And I suppose that many of my Soothing Apologies are preemptive . . . If I think a patron will be irritated, I apologize, regardless of fault. I wonder, now, how many actually would have been upset? I suppose it's become a habit, now.


  5. judy wirzberger

    Ah, and do you notice that women seem to say I'm sorry more than men. Why, when someone calls and the boss is busy do I say, I'm sorry, he's not available. I don't give a flying f. The boss does not want to spend his day talking to sales people and survey takers. I'm sorry I have to work for my bread and butter. Keep the peace, don't rock the boat, play nice, say you're sorry even if you're not. Of course, I'm sorry means it's my fault and I'm sorry means I'm sorry for you. And seldom do we say I'm sorry where it really counts. To ourselves. I'm sorry I ate that pizza. It really wasn't good for my body – but my mouth loved it.
    I think I say I'm sorry like we say How are you doing? We don't mean it. It's something that spills out. So now we can say I'm sorry I said I'm sorry.

    Pari, what do you call the Hippo in your garden (I"m not sorry I asked).

  6. Pari Noskin

    I'm sorry not to use the umlaude today <g>. I love that line about greatest respect. Oh . . . yes!

    I use them too. I not advocating abandoning all social, marketing or other kinds of graces. I just think this is an interesting subject to examine.

    May I help you buy a visa out of that country? I hope so. Perhaps my post can be like a found penny?

    I"M sorry I haven't answered your latest email! Her name is "Petunia." I just loved that one and it's stuck in spite of the more clever suggestions.

    Yes, it's so easy to say "I'm sorry." I wonder what the men will say today in the comments. I hope we hear from some of them to see if this really is more a gender-specific phenomenon.

  7. MJ

    Excellent post – I've been thinking about similar things recently. I was raised to apologize constantly – especially when someone else hurt or offended me (apparently I was supposed to be sorry that I had the poor form spoke up for myself, etc). With age and increased firmness of personal boundary protection, in select situations that "I'm sorry" has morphed to "tough, and I'm not apologizing for [not approving/liking this etc]." I'm the only woman in my law firm group – I've learned to never apologize, EVER. They see it as weakness, so once again, the "that's really tough, but…" response is better used.

    Probably not making everyone in the world think that I'm wonderful, but whatever…

  8. Gar Anthony Haywood


    Now that you mention it, it's indicative of how pathetically disorganized I am that rougly 70% of my emails to people begins with: "Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you on this, but…"

    As for apologies in general, those that actually convey the message that someone is genuinely regretful for having willfully done something that caused harm to others are in short supply these days. Instead, we get "apologies" that merely say, "Hey, I'm human. I did what I did. I kind of wish you hadn't been hurt in the process, but if you were, try to get over it and move on. I have."

    Kind of chokes you up, doesn't it?

  9. Louise Ure

    I'm with Judy…saying I'm sorry about things I have no sorrow about at all. It's expedient.

  10. Gayle Carline

    When I was pregnant with my son, I was watching Penelope Leach on her show about raising kids and a mom in the audience announced, with some indignation, that she would NEVER apologize to her child because SHE is the PARENT. Penelope blinked and said, "Then how are you going to teach her to apologize?"

    It was a grand A-HA moment for me. My mother had never apologized to me, although she had extracted plenty of Say-You're-Sorry's from all her kids. Like Leroy Jethro Gibbs (much as I love him), she saw it as a weakness. I realized I had spent a lifetime mouthing "I'm sorry" without ever feeling it because it had never been modeled for me.

    I eventually figured out how to let myself be openly, honestly sorry for something I had done and apologize – even to my own son. It doesn't feel weak to me. It feels real.

  11. David Corbett

    First, let me address Cornelia's claim to have a guilt that is both unearned and strange. The latter, perhaps. But unearned? Oh my dear, you forget: I saw. I heard. And I'm telling.

    (Knowing Ms. Read as I do, I fully expect that to drive her batshit for a good few hours.)

    Pari: I think you neglected one of the most prevalent forms of I'm sorry, the Abject Lover Apology, which basically says I'll take the blame if you'll just stop yelling/say you love me/come back: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhY0IWB-Brw&feature=related

    Where would pop music be without it?

    But I wonder if we aren't putting the apologetic cart before the guilty horse. What you're referring to seems to me not dissimilar to existential guilt, or what the Buddhists call lack, the intrinsic feeling that we're incomplete, and culpable for what's missing. This would suggest that the habit of saying I'm Sorry gets slathered onto an impulse that's already programmed into the machine, as it were.

    That doesn't mean we don't also learn the behavior. My dad was an abject apologizer, which made him such a perfect enabler. And that behavior unconsciously became a daily lesson for each of his sons.

    But I'm also reminded of an interesting passage from John Hawkes' TRAVESTY, which distinguishes between guilt and shame on this front:

    I do not believe in secrets—withheld or shared. Nor do I believe in guilt. At least let us agree that secrets and so-called guilty deeds are fictions to enhance the sense of privacy, to feed enjoyment into our isolation, to enlarge the rhythm of what most people need, which is a belief in life. But surely “belief in life” is not for you, not for a poet. Even I have discovered the factitious quality of that idea.

    No man is guilty of anything, whatever he does. There you have it. Secrets are for children and egotists and sensualists. Guilt is merely a pain that disappears as soon as we recognize the worst in us all. Absolution is an unnecessary and, further, incomprehensible concept. I am not attempting to justify myself or punish you. You are not guilty. Never for a moment did I think you were. As for me, my “worst” would not fill a crooked spoon.

    And yet there are those of us, and I am doing my best to include you among our select few, for whom the most ordinary kind of daily existence partakes of the contradictory sensation we know as shame. For such people everything, absolutely everything, is eroticized. Such a man walks through the stalls of a butcher in a kind of inner heat, which accounts for his smile.

  12. JT Ellison

    I fall into the sincere apology camp – I rarely use the word sorry if I don't mean it. I do know some perpetual apologizers, and it's disconcerting. They say I'm sorry and I think – wow, should I feel worse about this than I do? To me it was no big deal. Hmm…. Great post!

  13. Tammy Cravit

    I try to be very conscious not to apologize for things I'm not actually sorry for, because I think you're right that getting into a habit of apologizing all the time produces all sorts of guilty feelings.

    I'm not sure I think the un-meant apology is necessarily a guilt magnet. Especially for my daughter, who has some emotional and behavioral issues – she'll do terrible things and then offer a completely insincere apology without seeming to feel any guilt or remorse. In fact, lately she's started to say things like "I'm not going to apologize, because I know I'll just do it again", which is perhaps more honest but otherwise not much of an improvement.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Really interesting post, Pari. I'm sure I have as much unearned shame as the next person but it doesn't manifest in over-apologizing. I'm quick to apologize mainly in empathy, and I think it's a warning sign if I'm NOT apologizing quickly because I know how quickly it clears the air.

    But I think everyone's different that way and you are 100% on to something that it's an enlightening thing to be conscious about.

  15. Allison Davis

    Had a nice post, but then got an "unable to post" message, see if this posts and I'll try to rewrite…

  16. Allison Davis

    I use apologies in two ways. At work, I use it as part of my dealing with competing demands of clients — as a triage tool. I can't answer every email, request, demand, documents that the clients all simultaneously want, so apologize profusely when delaying or prioritizing the work, taking the blame all on my back.

    In my personal life, I use apologies as a way of saying "no thank you" — thanks for your invitation and I'm so sorry I can't attend…which really means no way I want to go but I don't want to hurt their feelings — and I do so much anyway out of "duty" that there is some guilt involved in this certainly.

    I'm the kind of person that wants everyone to be comfortable and good, and try to facilitate that and apologize when I can't even though it's not my responsibility (a group of people, something hitches up or goes wrong and I am the one who apologizes…)

    Sometimes apologies are a tool, sometimes a curse. The other side of the coin though is forgiveness, and as I thought through this blog today, I asked myself am I looking for forgiveness when I apologize?

  17. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Very perceptive post, Pari. The flip-side of the person who always apologizes is the person who exploits the person who always apologizes. They seem to arrive as a team. A dysfunctional relationship. One enables the other.

  18. Pari Noskin

    Oh, man . . . so I'm taking my lunch break and thought I'd stop by. So many good comments here.

    MJ, that's really interesting how you've turned the I'm sorry on its head. It also fascinates me that you'd be seen as weak if you apologized at work. Gets me wondering about the gender issue again. And I had the image of sharks around a gold fish when I read it.

    I think you're right. (In addition the the disorganization . . . from which I suffer too.) That's one reason those from the heart can't be shoved into a formulaic example like the others I mentioned.

    And, yeah, your example brought tears to my eyes.

    That particular form of apology is really easy, isn't it?

    The apology you're speaking about is the one that I respect the most. It IS from the heart and isn't done for convenience or to get someone off of our backs. It's said because it's important, crucial in fact, to a relationship we value.

    Holy crap. I don't think I understand that passage at all. I'm going to have to reread it several times.

    As to the abject lover apology, yeah. I know that one too. Thanks for adding it to the list.

    And, as to the existential guilt
    I do believe in that idea. The lack. Perhaps apologizing fills that hole in oneself rather than letting one embrace the void? I don't know.

  19. Pari Noskin

    I don't think I've ever heard you apologize lightly . . . hmmmm. I can also relate to what you're saying about someone who apologizes when you don't think it's a big deal. I had that happen the other day . . . I was just pointing out something that hadn't worked, no biggie, just informational. The person on the receiving end apologized as if she'd just broken my favorite vase.

    You are so wise.
    Your daughter's new phrase is at least indicative of a little more honest self-awareness. Perhaps there's a tiny bit of hope in that?

    Thanks, Alex.
    You're also correct that each of us approaches this differently. That's why I wanted to learn what others thought, about their relationships to this social convention.

    Oh, Allison,
    What a good question to ask. Very good indeed. That could be an entire post in itself.

    Yes . . . and ouch.

  20. Alafair Burke

    I was recently told by a friend that I apologize more than any person in the whole wide world, almost always for things I have absolutely no control over. It's guilt…for stuff I shouldn't feel guilty about. Once this was pointed out to me, I noticed that both of my sisters do it too. I'm pretty sure my mom does as well.

    At the same time, I've noticed that other people no longer seem to say sorry when perhaps they should. Instead, they say "no worries," as if it is up to them to decide whether or not I should worry about their mistake. As a chronic apologizer, "no worries" is my latest pet peeve.

  21. Reine

    Rethinking this from the other direction, I recalled that it made a huge difference to me when my mother, as part of her recovery process, apologised. It gave us a tiny space to form some experience of caring. So for a short time we did have something together.

  22. KDJames

    Have you covered the apology that says, "I'm sorry you got upset." Rather than, "I'm sorry I did something that upset you." That's one of my pet peeves. That and having to apologize to an angry customer for something someone else did (or, more likely, didn't do).

    When my kids were young I read an article that said kids often don't know what they're apologizing for and it's not enough to just make them say they're sorry. So I decided to test this theory and when one of the kids did something for which it was appropriate to say they were sorry, I asked them what they were sorry for. It was pretty amazing that a good deal of the time, they had no idea. So that became the new standard. They had to figure out the difference between "I'm sorry he took my toy" and "I'm sorry I punched him."

    I'm not likely to offer an apology unless it's warranted. But oh man, if I screw up, I don't even hesitate. I've seen many instances when apologizing is a weakness, when I cringe and want to tell the person to stop taking on all that guilt. But if you've done something wrong/offensive/whatever and someone truly deserves an apology? Owning up to it and offering sincere regret is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Unless maybe you're an attorney (loved your comment, MJ, so true). 😉

    Good topic, Pari. Some interesting responses.

  23. kit

    Good post for thinking.
    I used apolagies in different manner….usually, as a precursor to a fight…as in "I'm sorry you're such a worthless piece of shit, and a waste of DNA" and it generally worked.
    I also never realized how I sounded at times, until I heard my daughter use it on the phone to one of her friends
    " I'm sorry just doesn't cut it this time, if you were really sorry, you wouldn't have done this in the first place….and what exactly are you sorry for…doing (XXXXX)??? or getting caught at it ?"
    THAT was a wake- up call for me…I think she was about 10 at the time. I couold've been listening to myself.
    In fact I was so hard-nosed about this, that now, my sincerity is sometimes questioned….

  24. Laura

    My mum is a teacher, and she says that the best way to deal with parents is the "sorry, glad, sure" approach.
    "I'm sorry _____. I'm glad you brought this to my attention. I'll be sure to remedy the situation"
    I find myself using this at work a lot. But I feel like I'm not actually sorry. If that makes sense.
    "I'm sorry the book you've ordered hasn't arrived. (even though you ordered it TWO DAYS ago.) I'm glad you brought this up, other people must be waiting for their orders. I'll be sure to call the supplier and check on it" (who will tell me "You realize the order was placed yesterday and it's only just been keyed….)
    In my personal life, particularly in relationships – I do tend to apologize for things that aren't remotely my fault – just to ease the tension. Thank you Pari, for bringing this up. It's something I think needs a bit of an overhaul in my life. Brilliant timing and a terrific post 🙂

  25. Fran

    I used to tell my students that I don't mind small social apologies — you bumped me in the hall, I'm sorry, moving on — and sympathy over an unhappy/awful situation is absolutely called for.

    But I loathe people who use "I'm sorry" as a free pass. Someone does something wrong, they say "I'm sorry" and all is supposed to be forgiven. If I catch a student cheating and he said, "I'm sorry", frequently he figured that that's all he had to do, that I'd let it go, and he (and this a generic "he" here, by the way) shouldn't be punished in any way. After all, he SAID "I'm sorry" so isn't that enough?

    No. No, it's not. If someone's truly sorry, then they do whatever they can to fix the problem and try very hard not to do it again. "I'm sorry" is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    It's right up there with KD's non-apology apology, which I also detest. If you've done something that needs apologizing for, the apology should be sincere, not "I'm sorry I got busted" or "I'm sorry your feelings got hurt but I still meant what I said".

    What a great, great topic, Pari!

  26. Pari Noskin

    That "no worries" is just plain obnoxious. I don't know what I'd do if someone said that to me. I'd probably call him or her on it.

    Wouldn't your mother's apology count as a truly sincere one? It sounds like it. It also sounds like it was a tremendous and blessed gift.

    I'm amused. I was just thinking about that kind of apology.
    As far as the kids, I think I instinctively did what you mentioned . . . asked mine to explain what they were sorry for. They really got upset with me about it, but it forced them to think it through.

    And apologizing when it's truly appropriate? How could there be anything wrong with that?

    Thank you for sharing that story. Sometimes it's amazing what our children can teach us without intending to. I'm glad you had the wisdom to pay attention.

  27. Pari Noskin

    Thank *you* for taking the time to read and think about it.
    I know many of us do apologize as a way to smooth things over in our business relationships. I used to do that a lot. Now that I'm in the workplace anew, I'm not sure what my modus operandus is. I'm going to have to watch.

    Do watch out about doing it too much in your relationships though. I don't want any of that unearned guilt landing on your shoulder.

    Yeah, oh yeah.
    When my kids say I'm sorry now for smallish infractions, I usually tell them, "Don't say I'm sorry, just don't do it again." I hope eventually they might think before doing the thing in the first place.
    And . . . you're welcome. Thank you for giving this some thought.

    You are so right! I think just about any, "I'm sorry, but . . . " isn't an apology at all. There may be sincerity there, however, it's a different animal from a real apology.

  28. Pari Noskin

    I had a moment of grace with my mother a few days before she died. Though I've not lived your life, I have a sense of how important those gifted moments can be.

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