F had a tough day.

Every day he’s been student teaching, he’s come home and said, “I really screwed up today,” but for the most part he’s said it ruefully, not hopelessly or angrily. And he’s supposed to screw up. That’s the whole point of student teaching, right?

But today, for the first time, his supervising teacher reprimanded him in front of the class. Apparently, he opened the lesson he was to teach by saying, “Sorry, kids, I got my schedule mixed up. I thought it was time for writing, but it’s time for math.”

Right there, without even taking him aside, his supervising teacher snapped at him. “Never apologize to them,” she said. “What is there to apologize for? NOTHING. But more importantly, now you’ve told them you’re the kind of person who messes up. You’ve undermined your own authority.”

F was so upset he had to take a bathroom break and cry for ten minutes. (That’s my boy.) When I heard this story I told him–truthfully–that her reprimand sounded a little out of character (especially in front of the kids!) and that maybe she was having a bad day. But privately I was glad she said it. Maybe she can shock him out of opening with unnecessary apologies.

It’s interesting how hard we (we many people) work to undermine our own credibility. Obviously not everyone has this problem, but for some of us the desire to please people around us leads to unnecessary obsequiousness, and that leads to being taken advantage of, or at the very least disrespected. (Talk about plans backfiring.) I think to a degree, we’re trained by society to not want people to dislike us–a more serious ramification, for example, is that statistic that many rape victims find themselves in vulnerable positions because they are at first afraid of offending or insulting their attacker (before they realize that they are being attacked). And while I (knock on wood) have never gotten myself into a really dangerous predicament, I’ve definitely bought things I wasn’t interested in, talked to people who were mean to me, and went out on dates even after there had manifested pretty obvious red flags, all because I didn’t want to offend people or have them not like me.It’s the “sorry”impulse. And it’s gotta go.

When I was 17, I had my important “sorry” lesson. I got a job at the Borders in my town, and I worked my patooty off. I really loved it there–obsequious personalities and customer service go well together. I remember, though, a few days before Christmas when the line was wrapping around the store and one of the other clerks overheard me apologize to a customer for the wait. She took me aside and said, “If I ever hear you apologizing again, I’m going to smack you, so help me god.”

“But I can’t help it,” I told her. I knew myself even then.

“Yes, you can,” she said. “You’re going to have to practice. If you MUST say something, say ‘thank you.’ Thank them for waiting instead of apologizing.”

Thanking is a good trick. In many cases, it’s a fake apology. (Interestingly, in Japanese, if you’re REALLY thanking someone, you apologize–instead of arigato you might say domo sumimasen.) Even with this trick, though, I’ve spent the last ten years trying to excise the “sorry” impulse. I’m not quite there yet. Also, I’ve learned that there are times when saying “sorry” is much better than trying to defend an untenable position.

This is something F and I have in common. Although F and I are wildly different in temrs of backgrounds and interests–our respective friends never thought this would work out, since we had so little in common on the surface–we have very similar temperaments. People-pleasing is just one example. “Sorry” is another.

I hope he can break the habit. He is very much an old dog, though. He’s probably as we speak apologizing for his inability to stop apologizing.

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11 Responses to “sorry”

  1. Karissa says:

    LOL count me in the “sorry” club. But you know that already. Sorry.


  2. emilycross says:

    I think it was completely wrong for her to reprimand him in front of the class! Talk about undermining him – whatever about ‘the sorry’ part, I thought her behaviour was completely unprofessional!

    As someone who has stood up infront of students who were older than me/not that much younger – worse thing you can do is show unconfidence or weakness (and if you do – maybe make a joke of it, which shows confidence again or say you mixed it up but say it like no big deal because you’re one in control) but for someone to come in and say that in front of the students, basically its giving the students a licence to disrespect you! I’m so angry for F! If I was in anyway not the person I am (i.e. assertive) I would have approached her afterwards and demanded why she felt necessary to reprimand him in front of his students!

    In regards to the sorry thing, as someone who says sorry to people who bump into her – I think it’s like a defense mechanism, I don’t apologise half so much with people I know (actually more I know you, the more I won’t say sorry unnecessarily). I think it’s a way (just from my experience) of being non offensive and seen as non-threatening ‘nice’ person, but you’re right, sorry people get taken for a ride – prime example is me and my current apartmate who is extremely passive aggressive with anything that upsets her routine/space (even though we all pay same rent) so I’ve had to have some of my more assertive friends tell me how to handle her and last night I had my first victory, where I ignored her passive behaviour and she ended up having to do the chore she wanted me to do 🙂

    I really like that ‘thank you’ idea! I’m going to try it out! 🙂

    Sorry for the over personal rant – damn it – I mean, THANK YOU for listening to my over personal rant LOL!!!

  3. Leeann says:

    Unfortunately, I definitely have “sorry syndrome” as well as many of my women friends. I used to think I’d grow out of it, as I haven’t met any cane carrying grandmas who constantly feel the need to apologize. But as I near my 34th birthday I can honestly say I’m sorry, I still feel the need to apologize at least once a day. Not for long though. I refuse to continue being a panty waist. I’m sorry no more!

  4. JES says:

    “Thanks!” instead of “Sorry!”: that’s great.

    A few years back, I had occasion to read a self-help book called Too Nice for Your Own Good. Many cringeworthy moments of self-recognition followed. The therapist who’d recommended it finally asked me a couple sessions later what I’d thought of it, and I said it was pretty good but I hadn’t finished it. He burst out laughing when I apologized for not seeing it through; it took me a puzzled beat or two but then I laughed, too. One of those “Omigod I’m trapped in a koan and I can’t get out!” experiences.

  5. Emily says:

    I’m terrible when it comes to apologizing. At my bookstore, I’m always saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t have that title.” My ex-coworker always chided me about that, and while I see her point, I didn’t/don’t think it was really a problem. (Also, I went to college in Canada, which is infamous for “I’m sorry”. ;D)

    I’m definitely aware of how much I use “soft speech” or however you want to call speech that uses a lot of modifiers and doesn’t make a lot of direct statements (“I think that…” “There might be…”), but I take offense at the idea that any and all use of it is bad, and invites people to walk all over you. Yes, it happens, but it’s really just a matter of know what to say when. Context is important! But identifying those times is a skill that needs to be learned, and I definitely need to work on that, too.

  6. cindy says:

    sorry is my way of empathizing and
    sympathizing. it’s not claiming fault to anything.
    not usually at least. =)

  7. Emily–I agree with you in that we should not apologize (har, har) for our personalities. I’m proud of my personality in many ways, including (most of the time) my desire to people-please. I want to make the lives of people around me better, not worse (and I want to be known for being that kind of person). But I also don’t want to be taken advantage of. In any ways, even little ones. That makes me REALLY CRANKY.

    It’s tough, right?

    Actually, I have another, longer story about this. I haven’t decided if I should tell it here yet. Maybe later.

  8. Very true! Whenever someone I know is taking up working with the public, this is what I point out to them. Not just the suggestion to avoid saying “sorry” and replace it with a “thank you”, but to generally phrase things in a positive, constructive way. I’ve gotten especially good results by replacing “I don’t know” with a variation of “pardon me while I go find out”.

  9. pacatrue says:

    Hmmm… Well, I’m a person who says “sorry” too much, or at least I did as a kid. However, I disagree strongly with the teacher-advisor to F. First, as Emily points out, the teacher directly taking F on in front of the students undermined F far more than F’s apology did. (Unless they start to see F as the put-upon one they like more than the advisor.) Second, there are certainly times when a teacher should apologize to their students. While students do indeed like to see their teacher as a confident person with skills and knowledge, the idea that a teacher should never apologize when they genuinely make a mistake is, I believe, wrong. Once last Spring, I gave a lecture on some issues of ethnicity and language in Hawaii. After class, I realized I’d fallen into the “let me tell you everything from the perspective of a white person” trap – not because that was the most important thing to say, the thing that was most educational, but because it was easy. The next day I told them that I erred. I saw one guy nodding and I think I grew in his estimation from the apology.

    What F’s teacher should have said later is: “Think of teaching sort of like a performance — singing or being in a play. If an actor does something wrong backstage, the audience doesn’t want to know. They want to see the best performance you can give. So, even when you do make a mistake before class, still give your best performance and then fix the backstage behavior so that your next performance is even better.”

    Next up, I see nothing wrong with a sales person apologizing when a customer has had a bad experience. The sales person isn’t apologizing because they did something wrong. They are a rep for the store and they are apologizing because the store has given a bad experience. More power to you! When President Clinton apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, it wasn’t because he had done something wrong. He was the rep of the U.S. government, when had.

    Finally, yeah, the word “sorry” is indeed used sometimes to express sympathy for a person, not to apologize for a fault. It’s ambiguous and must be inferred through context.

    I should say that I say these things both 1) as a person who apologized so much in high school that the fact made it into an essay in the school year book (written by a friend and it was flattering), and 2) a person who has two research papers on apologies in Korea and the U.S. One is coming out next year; another has been in “accept with changes” hell forever.

    Ahem. Rant done.

  10. Oo, Paca, can you be more specific re: what your papers are on?

  11. pacatrue says:

    Whoa. You want to know about my research. This is a weird situation for me to be in….

    BTW, what are we calling you here?

    So, the research I mentioned is within the so-called “pragmatics” subfield of linguistics. Other areas are things like phonetics, syntax, and semantics. Pragmatics is the study of language use — how we put all those sounds, grammars, and meanings into use as we relate to other people. One traditional focus for this area are sentences that fulfill social functions – greetings, requests, apologies, promises, etc. I ended up in this area through editing a classmate’s dissertation and then becoming a co-author with her.

    Anyway, one paper is a survey of many ways that apologies are used in Korean. We then examine the relevance of this for our understanding of pragmatics (i.e., the theory part). The second paper looks at possible apologies when family members commit a possibly offensive act. Will Koreans or Americans take responsibility for the acts of another and apologize? The stereotype is that Koreans would do so and Americans would not because Korean society is supposed to be collectivist and Americans are atomistic individualists. Our little results showed equivalent apologie rates in both groups, suggesting our societies aren’t so easily categorized.

    We’re now launching another study comparing apologies for when I do an act and when my family members do the same act. We hope to see different language patterns that could be of interest.

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