Have you noticed how saying “sorry” has become an automatic polite thing to do these days. You bump into someone by accident, you say sorry. You disagree with someone and you might say it to dispel a disagreement. You are given the wrong meal at a cafe and the first word that comes out of your mouth when you mention it to the waiter is “sorry, but…” Or if someone is blocking your way and you’re simply trying to get through, you might say “sorry”, when it is more appropriate to say “excuse me”. And sometimes we even say sorry when what we really want to say or should say is thank you.
You’d be surprised if you counted the number of times you said sorry in one day. Sorry has become a reflex and we seem to be apologising for everything, even things that are not our fault or doing. But how much do we really think about what we mean when we say it? Like anything that is overused, it can become an automatic response, with no genuine intent or feeling behind it.
Don’t get me wrong, saying “sorry” absolutely has its place in our everyday lives like when you accidentally bump into someone, or you are expressing sympathy or empathy towards another person or when you’ve made a mistake. But don’t apologise when the situation doesn’t require it. Most of all, don’t say sorry in place of thank you.
“Thank you” is a phrase used to express our gratitude and appreciation for others. It’s accepted universally and is such a powerful phrase because it takes attention away from ourselves and gives to those around us. When we say thank you to someone, it is an immediate gift from us to them. The amount of appreciation we express, and our ability to sincerely say “thank you” has a profound impact on how we relate to others. To quote Jean-Baptiste Massieu, gratitude is the memory of the heart.
By saying “thank you”, you immediately acknowledge the other person and recognise their contribution. When you turn up late to meet a friend, try saying “thank you for waiting for me” instead of “sorry, for being late again”. It shifts the tone of the meeting away from you apologising for your lateness to cultivating a sense of positivity between the two of you because you indirectly acknowledge your lateness, and more importantly, you express your appreciation of the time they spent waiting for you. Likewise “Thank you for listening to me” is much better than “Sorry for going on and on and taking up your time” as you’re showing gratitude for their time and friendship.
There is no better illustration of the power of thank you over sorry than this very clever and poignant series of cartoons by New York based artist Yao Xiao where she makes the point – don’t say sorry if you what you really want to say is thank you.
“A few friends of mine would always say ‘thank you for hanging out with me’ and I couldn’t figure out why it was so nice to hear it,” Xiao said. “When I thanked people, it brought to light the fact that we just did something together – and that realisation made us both happier.”
In her drawings Xiao presents scenarios where most people tend to say sorry, and flips them to emphasise the gratitude we could be expressing instead. Xiao says she doesn’t want people to be ashamed for apologising, though. “To me it is not about correcting behavior, it is about taking an extra step when you are capable. I know that when I say ‘sorry I’m taking up so much of your time,’ I just want to hear someone say ‘it’s okay, and I like spending time with you.’ It comes from the same place, and people understand it. That’s why I chose ‘If you want to say thank you, don’t say sorry.'”
While you’re rethinking your apologies (and perhaps your thank yous), remember some things just don’t need to be apologised for.
Words are powerful and we need to stop using it to apologise for our existence and use it to confidently hold our space.