I say sorry, a lot. Most of my emails start with some variation on “sorry I haven’t written in X,” in which X is an amount of time that, until a decade or so ago, would have been a perfectly appropriate silence between contact. I apologize when my foot touches someone else’s foot on the subway—and sometimes, even, when someone else’s foot touches mine. It’s not quite a tic, but it’s not quite conscious, either.
Apparently, apologizing is something I need to apologize for. Sorry gets a lot of abuse these days. “Too many apologies could leave your career in a sorry state of affairs,” says Payscale.com. “The more times you say you’re sorry, the less it means; the less meaningful, the easier it is to say,” writes Businessweek. “Sorry is simply another way of downplaying our power, of softening what we do, to seem nice,” says Time.
Still, I’m not sorry.
There are different kinds of sorry. There’s true contrition— “I’m sorry I accidentally ate your prize-winning koi.” We don’t actually say that kind of sorry too often. First, we have to do something wrong. Then we have to get caught—and as humans, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying not to get caught, and at this point in our evolution we’re pretty good at that, so.
Then there’s the non-apology apology, oftentimes an ironic preemption to what everyone knows will be a sorry-worthy offense: “Sorry if I offend you, but koi are ugly fish.”
And there’s a third: a casual, almost offhand “sorry”—“Sorry, but could you repeat that?” “Sorry I’m late.” “Sorry, what’s a koi?” This is my kind of sorry, and I know I’m not alone. We all do it. But it’s this brand of sorry that comes in for attack.
I’m not actually sorry for being five minutes late to a meeting, or brushing against someone’s shoe. Rather, I’m showing empathy.
The problem with the anti-apology crowd is that while they recognize that it can be used in different ways, they think it means the same thing in all cases. But that’s not right. When I say I’m sorry, casually, I’m not trying to apologize in the same way I would apologize for something truly offensive. I’m not actually sorry for being five minutes late to a meeting, or brushing against someone’s shoe. Rather, I’m showing empathy—but not too much, because everyone involved knows these are pretty low-level incidents. I understand that contact with my shoe might have disturbed you—but I also figure that you probably didn’t even notice, on a crowded train. I’m sorry I’m late to the meeting, even though I know you started without me, and that I could have just played hooky and no one would have cared.
It’s what a psychologist would call a “low-cost interpersonal strategy”—on the off chance that you might have been offended by something I did, I’ll defuse it with a two-syllable word, and show that I’m attuned to your troubles, however minor. It’s a social lubricant, a little bit of which helps reduce the need for major repairs later on.
And for all the column inches spent denouncing casual sorrys, this sort of new twist on the old apology is widely used and, I would argue, well understood, part of a general turn toward a more empathetic everyday English. The linguist John McWhorter argues that, far from degrading the language, many of the interjections that have crept into everyday speech in recent decades—“like,” “totally,” “LOL”—are signs that we’re becoming more sensitive, as a society, to others. “ ‘He’s totally going to call you’ contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t,” he writes. “As with ‘like,’ ‘totally’ tracks and nods to the opinions of others.”
And that seems about right when it comes to “sorry,” too. Sorry is so common in our communication these days because the nature of our communication has changed. Group emails, Gchat, collaborative work projects: We are aware that, however small the audience, we are more and more often onstage, performing, even if it’s just Ben and Emily from accounting. Others are watching, and we feel a greater need to account for our actions in front of them.
We also have a lot more to be sorry about. Especially among younger generations, we’ve been raised to bear an acute sensitivity to other people’s feelings and their personal space, both physical and emotional. When we step inside it, we’re more likely to apologize—again, not out of contrition, but out of empathy.
Sorry is so common in our communication these days because the nature of our communication has changed.
Yet even as we are growing more empathetic as a culture, we are more cutthroat as an economy, which is why sorry gets so much heat from some corners, particularly in the business world. Just behind the obsession with all things disruptive and killer is the implication that your livelihood, too, can be disrupted—and not just by an app, but by another employee, with better coding skills, or better social skills. Job security, it seems, is for the weak, and so is empathy. Working life, in this economy, is just one giant Thunderdome, and neither Tina Turner nor Mel Gibson ever apologized for all the dudes they killed therein.
We might not club each other over the head as often as before, but modern humans are still pretty competitive, and some people, it seems, take casual contrition as a sign of weakness. “Neglecting to apologize means we don’t have to admit we’ve done anything wrong,” adds Businessweek, to the quiet cheers of oil-company executives the world over.
But not everyone feels that way; some of us believe that we are all a lot better off if we lower our quills a bit more often. We can do that in many ways, but one easy option is to pepper a few sorrys into our daily conversation. If some people think you’re weak for it, well, let them. You’ve got nothing to apologize for—until you get caught with a prize koi on your plate.