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Stop apologizing for taking up space

Betsy and Graffiti in AmsterdamHow many times a day do you apologize? 5, 10, 20, 50? If you are apologizing more than a few times a week, you are either over-apologizing or a pretty big jerk.

Is this you?

  • Apologizing for bumping into people and inanimate objects. “Whoops, sorry!” (even when they bumped into you and even though “excuse me” is more appropriate)
  • Apologizing for things other people screwed up for themselves. “I’m sorry you failed your test.” (even though you know he didn’t even study for it)
  • Apologizing for our bosses, coworkers and friends when we think they behave badly. “I’m so sorry – she’s not normally like this!” (yes, she is)
  • Apologizing for the weather: “I’m sorry for the rain today; I was hoping for sun!” (as if you have the power to control either)
  • Apologizing for not reading someone else’s mind. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you also wanted a cup of coffee. Let me go make one for you.”
  • Apologizing before asking for help. “I’m sorry to bother you, but can you help me with this?” (Or the related, “I’m such a ditz with this – can you help me?”)

Over-apologizers blurt out a mea culpa for every stupid reason under the sun and for events that don’t even warrant an apology, which diminishes the power of an actual apology: “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

A recovering over-apologizer

It didn’t occur to me that I had a problem with this until we went to South America last year. In learning Spanish I kept saying “lo siento” when I bumped into someone in the market or when I was trying to get a waiter’s attention. I mistakenly thought it was equal to “excuse me.” My friend informed me that in those instances I should be saying “disculpe” instead, which means “excuse me.” In all other instances, I should keep my mouth shut.

I’m sorry ≠ Excuse me

It wasn’t until I had this pointed out that I realized just how often I said “I’m sorry” in English, too. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a place for the apology, and I think we should own up to our mistakes and make amends. But there is no reason to apologize for the weather, for needing help, for not reading someone’s mind, and most of all, for simply taking up space.

I was reminded of this whole “I’m sorry/excuse me” revelation recently after Jezebel posted this fine piece of bloggery about not apologizing for her ladybits (read it, it’s good). It sparked an interesting conversation on my Facebook page about whether we over-apologize or over-thank, and then I steered the conversation to this other piece of recent Internet cleverness (click here if you don’t see the video below).

Why all the hubbub about over-apologizing and silly-girl-speak? Well, I think it indicates a bigger problem. When we apologize for every little thing under the sun, we are diminishing ourselves in they eyes of the people around us. Worse, it impacts the way we think – about ourselves, the world around us, and how we fit in it.

When we speak like little girls, trying to be cute when making a tough point or pouting to get our way instead of stating what we want, we are saying that we have to play tricks to get our point across, that what we have to say isn’t valuable enough on its own, unadorned.

We are shrinking ourselves to balance on a single blade of grass when an entire acre is available to us.

Over-apologizing diminishes us, in both our eyes and in the people around us. If you are apologizing for taking up space to an inanimate object, there is a problem. If you are apologizing for people and events outside your control, then you are not focusing enough on what you do control.

Stop apologizing for things you didn’t do, for taking up space, for having an opinion.

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About Betsy

Betsy Talbot can't live without a Moleskine notebook, her passport, and happy hour. She sold everything she owned to travel the world with her husband Warren in 2010, and she's been enjoying her midlife crisis ever since. Betsy writes about creating the life you want from the life you already have in her books and on the Married with Luggage website. Drop her an email at btalbot (at) marriedwithluggage (dot) com and check out her Google+ page.

Comments

  1. Interesting article. While I don’t believe I over appologize, I definitely use it as a tactic to keep things moving forward. Too often we get bogged down in who’s to blame. In situations where blame isn’t relevant and bears no consequence, I’ll often just go ahead and accept it. Simple things like “I’m sorry, I must not have been clear” difuses situations that might otherwise break down into counterproductive finger pointing.

    But I agree, I wouldn’t appologize for something I didn’t do unless I felt I was getting something worthwhile in return.

    • Hey, Brian. Warren uses a phrase that I love in situations of blame or disagreement, and since he’s such a good negotiator I have stolen it. He finds a common point in the discussion, points it out and says: “We don’t disagree.” Once you realize that there is already agreement in an area, it takes the focus off blame for the rest and helps the group move forward to a solution. It is very effective, and I’ve seen it work in 1:1 interactions (yep, me) and in larger groups. It is finding the common point and saying, “hey, I hear you, and I want to work this out” that is more powerful than pushing someone else to apologize or take the blame.

  2. A friend of mine, an Israeli Arab (not a Palestinian) told me that when he first came to England he saw two cars hit each other in a small accident. Both drivers got out and a apologised. Then he knew he had come to the promised land! This is why we are as we are, maybe it doesn’t translate into Spanish but its our culture and it suits us.

    • Lizzie, we Canadians are the same way (British inheritance?)…I, for one, apologize all the time, and really notice it when I go overseas. Sorry, it’s just habit :)

    • The promised land – that is one of the funniest stories about cultural differences I’ve heard in a while, Lizzie. Apologizing after a fender bender is expected, I think. After all, you have each damaged another person’s property or self.

      I’ll never look on another minor accident again without thinking of your story!

  3. Yup. Guilty. Oh, so damn guilty. It’s a very hard habit to break. It was easier to stop drinking soda! I can go without saying it for a bit, but I find that when I’m really overwhelmed I say “I’m sorry” for everything -even when the person beside me sneezes. Some people have OCD, I have ISD (I’m Sorry Disease)!!

    • ISD! Ha, that is one to remember, SpunkyGirl. When I first realized I was doing it, I started paying attention. At first I had no good alternative, so I would just think of someone I admired and wondered what she would say in that situation. Over time, I realized that she wouldn’t say ANYTHING most of the time, just nod her head, move around, or take in the information. I tried it, it felt good, and I kept doing it.

      PS – I’m just glad you said “guilty” instead of “I’m sorry!” :)

  4. Lizzie, your comment made me laugh the hardest: “He knew that he had come to the promised land!”
    I’ve often been told, “Don’t apologize, it’s not YOUR fault!” I guess I just use “I’m sorry” as a default to when life hands you an odd situation that’s hard to sort out in a hurry. Next time before owing up (for something that’s not even my fault), I’ll remember to think it over and say something more appropriate!

    • Jill, I think it is because it is a default response it is a problem. We aren’t even thinking, and by the time the day is over we have apologized 10 or 20 times. Over time, we learn to take the “at fault” position in any given situation, and that can’t help but influence how you think of yourself in the world, even in a subtle way. And who wants to always be at fault, especially in what should be the relative safety of your brain? :)

      Most often, no response is needed, just a step to the side, or a nod of the head (or nothing at all if you bump into a chair!)

  5. Great article, Betsy. I hadn’t really even thought about it until you posted the link to Jezebel’s article the other day. Since then I’ve been paying attention and see just how often not only I say I’m sorry but people all around do. It’s been pretty eye-opening. I’m really making an effort to use excuse me instead. It’s been pretty interesting!

    • Peggy, I was surprised at the number of comments that update received, which is why I wrote this post. I was one of those people before, apologizing for everything because it was the polite thing to do, and it wasn’t until I read about that woman apologizing to her lover for her sensitive vagina that I realized what an issue it was still for many people. I mean, that’s a heckuva thing to apologize for!

      One of my friends wears a thick rubber band around his wrist, and every time he says a phrase he doesn’t want to say anymore he pops himself with it. I don’t know that I want to go that far, but I do know that having the awareness will wake you up to how often you say certain things.

      Good luck, Peggy.

  6. No doubt we Americans do this way too much. I remember in China everyone commenting on how much I apologized and asking me why I felt the need to do it.

    Sure enough we should know what words are coming from us, and why?

    • Justin, I do think part of it is a cultural thing. In a few countries we’ve been told that Americans smile too much, that if they aren’t smiling they think it means they are unhappy. In part I think that’s true, but of course we have the opposite impression – that people from some other countries are just grumpy because they don’t smile as often as we do. It just goes to show how much we subconsciously judge others without knowing the cultural background.

      But yes, we can and should own our words proudly.

  7. I apologize there for I am Canadian! It is true we over do it, saying sorry, for everything.

    Working for years on the express line at Safeway, fellow Canadian’s would commend on how much I said sorry. But like Brian said above, it keeps things moving along, and in my work, in one direction, towards the exit door!

    Thanks for this lovely post! Now that we live in France, there is a difference between the level of regaurd, but maybe this is the normal level, and some of us are way too friendly and agreeable. There’s worst things to be.
    Eva

    • Eva, you out-apologized your fellow Canadians? I think that’s a wakeup call! :) It is interesting to see how the world differs in custom on these kinds of things, isn’t it? It gives us a chance to see what works for us and what doesn’t – things we might not have ever questioned before.

  8. Very interesting. I don’t think anyone can apologize more than the Japanese. It is a national habit. lol! And the younger women here have their own form of “cutesy girl” that is so saccharin it makes Hello Kitty look like biker-chick. lol!! Yumi just rolls her eyes; that’s not her style at all. Loved the video too; um . . . so . . . accurate. lol!!

    • Tranque, I was just reading about a new movie called Young Adult that Charlize Theron is in. She asked the wardrobe director to get her a bunch of faded Hello Kitty tshirts to wear for her dysfunctional character.

      “I’m pretty amazed by Hello Kitty. I see so many women in their 30s walking around in Hello Kitty shit and nobody is concerned for them,” Theron said.

      I never thought of Hello Kitty on an adult as the symbol of dysfunction, but there you go.

  9. Great post, Betsy (and I laughed out loud to that S*it Girls Say video!) I 99% agree with what you’re saying (sorry…oh, wait..!) The one thing I have an issue with is bumping into someone (regardless of who bumped into who) It’s just a nice way of sating excuse me, or “I’m sory I wasn’t paying attention” and I’d much prefer to say and hear that, than what usually happens: the person does not even acknowledge you. I find that to much ruder and more of an issue than if both parties apologize.

    But this really made me think, and I know I’m super guilty of overapologizing. But I won’t apologize for it, dammit! :-)

    • Maria, I just saw version #2 of the Shit Girls Say video and a couple of spinoffs, and I have to say it has already jumped the shark. But I’ll still stand by the power of the first video to wake us up to some of the, um, “less effective” ways we communicate.

      As for bumping into people, I think on occasion this happens. But I’ve seen this overapologizing over and over again in office hallways and sidewalks for people who never even come close to touching each other. I mean, are we all really that paranoid about possible human contact?

      I’m glad to hear you aren’t apologizing for it, though. :)

  10. Great post, Betsy! I am NOT guilty of over-apologizing . . . or of little girl speak. ACK!

    It’s actually FUN when guys (of a certain age) expect an apology (just because of my gender) . . . even when they are the ones misbehaving or stepping over the line.

    If you’re interested:
    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/step-away-from-the-cheese/

    • That’s a funny story, nrhatch. You’d think poker players would be smart enough to bring their own food for those long games. And that “aw, little lady” kind of routine makes me want to punch someone in the throat. You handled it like a pro.

  11. Betsy, this is fantastic. (Mostly because it was like you were watching my life play out.) I love the quote, “we are shrinking ourselves to balance on a single blade of grass when an entire acre is available to us.” Could not be truer and I am going to share. I needed to hear this today, thank you so much.

    • Hey, Donna. Isn’t it funny how something can resonate so much we think the writer has been spying on us? Just goes to show this is all part of the human condition, and there is no reason to ever feel like we’re going through something that no one else can understand. Good luck on your journey, Donna.

  12. ‘Stop apologising for the things you never done’ as the Jam sang in ‘A town called Malice’ – kind of seems apt

  13. OMG this is me. I’m definitely an over-apologizer and didn’t even realize it. Must stop doing this. Thanks for opening my eyes.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] with Luggage has a post telling us to stop apologizing for taking up space.  I didn’t even realize how many times I apologized until I started to pay more attention to [...]

  2. [...] a week ago she commented here on the post about over-apologizing: “Betsy, this is fantastic. (Mostly because it was like you were watching my life play out.) [...]

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