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“Say you are sorry.” How many times have you heard a parent chastising their child use that phrase? If you pay attention when you are walking past a playground, toy store, daycare, shallow end of a swimming pool or anywhere that children are likely to be gathered, you will almost inevitably hear a parent or guardian telling one child to say “sorry” to another. 

Children are taught to apologize when they are very young. It is right and proper to apologize after you have done something wrong. It is also simply good manner to apologize if you have inconvenienced someone by making them wait while you dug your boarding pass out from the bottom of your purse or stood blocking the way without realizing the other person was there. These are the proper instances when you should hear your mother’s voice telling you to say “sorry” as if you were a rambunctious five year old once again who just knocked over the other kid on the playground because you ran into them. 

Apologies are something that require practice, so it is good that people start learning when they are young. To truly say you are sorry, you have to swallow your pride and admit that you made a mistake or did something wrong. Pride never tastes good, and stating aloud that you screwed up is not pleasant for anyone. Apologizing is, however, a necessary evil for anyone who ever wishes to have any sort of interpersonal relationship or exist in an even marginally civilized society. There is, however, such a thing as going too far.

Next time you are out and about, pay attention to how many times someone says “sorry” to you. You will probably hear it repeatedly. You will hopefully hear it from the person who runs into you as they are hurrying around the corner of the clothing rack. You should hear it from the person who was not paying attention to the line in the grocery store and stood next to the self-checkout machine texting instead of taking a few steps forward and freeing up the machine for the next person. 

If you pay attention, you might notice that you are also hearing “sorry” from those who have no real reason to be apologizing to you. When you are the one blocking the entire aisle at the grocery store while you debate over what brand of taco shells you want to buy, the person trying to squeeze by you to reach the salsa should not be the one apologizing. If you start arguing with the cashier and wake up the baby behind you, the harried mother should not be the one apologizing because the infant is crying. You will probably, however, still hear those people apologizing to you. 

“Sorry” has invaded the modern vocabulary in a truly strange way. Even though many people seem to either thrive on confrontation today or appear to view apologizing as admitting to some deep personal flaw, many people say “sorry” more than ever. Plenty of people, especially young women, preface every question they ask with the word “sorry.” Apologizing at the start of a question is appropriate when you need to ask someone to repeat something they already said several times because you were not paying attention. It may also be appropriate if you have a question you have to ask immediately even though the person speaking asked you to wait to ask questions until their presentation, story or explanation was finished. If you are interrupting, prefacing your question with a “sorry” might also be a good idea. Other than that, however, no one should ever be apologizing for the simple act of asking a question. Yet, that is exactly what many young women seem to be doing. 

Prefacing a question, request for clarification or even a civil, reasonable disagreement with “I’m sorry, but” immediately makes your point easier to dismiss. A question that might otherwise be given a lengthy or detailed explanation might only receive a short answer. A perfectly reasonable disagreement or civilly pointing out a flaw in a plan or argument might be brushed aside or completely ignored. When you imply that you are sorry for speaking up, you and your ideas are easily ignored. This is especially problematic for young women who are already in the habit of using uptalk, or ending statements with a change in pitch that makes the statement sound like a question. Such people are seen as having little confidence and are often perceived as less intelligent than their peers who speak with level tones and ask questions without shame.

The fact that people apologize more than is strictly necessary is not just a problem for those who are the ones apologizing. When a person says they are sorry all the time, the word comes to lose its meaning. When the person truly wants or needs to apologize, they have to find words other than “I’m sorry.” They say it so often that the phrase has become trite or useless. 

This is not just true of people who seem to start every statement with the word “sorry.” If you have a habit of saying you are sorry when you are not, your apologies have just become meaningless as well. If you are not actually sorry, do not lie and apologize. There are plenty of ways to agree to disagree politely or to recognize that there was a problem that was no one’s fault without one person being forced to falsely apologize. 

“Say you’re sorry” is an important lesson that children, and many adults, need to learn and practice. When people get older, however, there should be a second lesson: only say you are sorry if you truly mean it, otherwise, it stops meaning anything at all.