Have you noticed how often we apologise for ourselves – and in such subtly disguised ways?
I don’t mean the apologies we make when we step up and take responsibility for our part in causing misunderstandings, conflict or hurt. They are essential to the smooth conduct of our relationships and our lives.
I’m talking about the ubiquitous ‘I’m sorry I exist’ kind of apologies that seem to be particularly prevalent among women. Not exclusively but most noticeably. In one women’s group of which I was a member, we banned apologies of any kind, such was their overuse.
We apologise when we cry, get sick, ask for help, even when we inadvertently bump trolleys in the supermarket.
I detected my own temptation to apologise this week by adding ‘I’m spatially challenged’ to my request for specific directions in an email. I stopped myself in time but wondered what triggers this need to insert some put-down of oneself when there is absolutely no reason to do so. (I’m not even the slightest bit spatially challenged, as it happens.)
Is it a form of people pleasing? is it an instinctive habit to take the blame? Have we been brought up to think that apologising is a ‘nice’ thing to do? That it will make people OK with us or love us more? In reality, it has the opposite effect. Not only is it unbecoming, it is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Yet we all do it, to some degree.
I’ve noticed apologies come in insidious disguises:
Uriah Heep syndrome (“ever so humble”), this form of apology is often expressed as a preamble such as “I don’t know much about this topic..’ or ‘I’m only a small player…’ Here, we are heading off the judgment we most fear or anticipate, in advance. By apologising at the outset, we hope to convey an endearing humility. Instead the listener is left feeling short-changed and could be forgiven for not paying much attention. If we want to be heard or taken seriously, this is the worst way to go about it.
Beginning a speech or presentation with an apology is a similar trap. Unconsciously intended to ingratiate with us with the audience, it instead leaves the audience feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. They could be forgiven for wondering why they bothered to come.
Apologies accompany the presentation of food, too. In our haste to win approval we quickly tell guests what didn’t quite work out about the dish as we serve it up. What is this? Fishing for compliments? When we do receive a compliment such as “This looks delicious” we find ourselves saying “It’s a bit burnt on the bottom, I’m afraid”.
Before one of my very first dinner parties, a friend gave me a cheeky tip. ‘Always be the first to taste your food at the table,’ she advised, ‘and then quickly say “Mmm, this is delicious”. Everyone will agree with you, no matter how the food tastes’. Great idea!
We also apologise indirectly when we make excuses for not doing things. ‘I didn’t contact that person because I know how busy he is and I don’t want to bother him’, which really translates as ‘I’m not important/worthy enough to take up his time’. Why not let him make that choice?
We think apologies will get us off the hook for being late or not doing what we said we would do. Apologising can work but not as a substitute for taking responsibility or being true to our word. Of course there are times when circumstances are beyond our control and an apology is the best we can offer.
Have you heard the phrase “big someone up”, as a way of making someone feel great about themselves? “Small someone down” is the opposite, (minimization) usually applied to ourselves. It often occurs as false modesty. “I can’t imagine why I was invited…” or “I’m sure you could find someone cleverer than me”
Mis-hearing or misunderstanding
Apologies have come into common usage as a question when we don’t hear or understand something. So we say ‘Sorry”? In this context, sorry has taken over from “I beg your pardon?” Why not simply ask “could you please repeat that”? without the added apology.
Having said that, I’ve just apologised for not getting to my mobile phone in time to answer it!
Response to a compliment:
Just yesterday I was complimented on a blouse I was wearing. I heard the words ‘it’s very old’ forming and bit my tongue just in time. ‘Thank you’ was more gracious and no doubt made me and the person giving the compliment feel much better than a back-handed apology would have.
But the lovely woman who helps out with our cleaning takes the cake. She has a very endearing habit of humming or singly quietly to herself as she works. I told her the other day how much we enjoy the way she fills the house with music while she’s here. Her response? ‘Oh, sorry’.
We all do it. Why, when it gains us nothing and loses us the very thing we are seeking, the confidence and respect of others and, more importantly, ourselves?