When You Should Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘Sorry’

When You Should Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘Sorry’
Photo: tomertu, Shutterstock

Apologising correctly and with great effect is an imprecise art. Any apology that truly suffices will convey both why it is you’re sorry, and that you understand how your potential transgression may have affected other people.

But on occasion, sorry doesn’t cut it. The aggrieved party might think your mea culpa only occurred to appease them, or to smooth things over after a rocky patch for convenience’s sake. If you feel that your apologies aren’t carrying enough water for whatever reason, you might opt for a different, somewhat unorthodox approach: say thank you instead.

An apology, in essence, is an admission of guilt, that at the very least suggests a willingness to grow and learn from a mistake. Saying thank you has a similar, albeit more direct effect in lieu of a traditional apology, as it conveys that you’ve already learned from your mistake — or at least you’re trying to.

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“Thank you” makes it a learning experience

There are books on the rigors of crafting an effective apology, but offering thanks is a much more direct gesture. Expressing thanks flatters the aggrieved, rather than highlights your misdeeds.

For example, if you tend to talk over someone in casual conversation, and they bring this up to you in frustration, it might behoove you to thank them for bringing this issue to your attention. Rather than offering a mere, one-word apology, you’re letting them know that you appreciate the insight into how your behaviour was frustrating for them.

Saying thank you, or that you appreciate an issue being highlighted, suggests rather enthusiastically that you’re taking the criticism in stride. It leaves little doubt as to whether you’re still re-litigating the quarrel in your head when it’s theoretically resolved, because you’ve shown you’re anything but bitter.

It helps boost the other person’s confidence in you

If you’re truly sorry about something, at a minimum you want the other party to have faith in your abilities to rectify the problem. Substituting an apology with some graciousness will help you in that regard. In a 2019 study published in the Journal of Marketing, researchers found that the dynamic worked pretty flawlessly in retail settings. In the study, consumers felt better about themselves when retail workers thanked them for pointing out mistakes, rather than apologizing.

Taking ownership of a fault by thanking someone else can make you feel more empowered than meek. It suggests, “Hey, I see that and I’ll work on it, because it’s fully within my grasp.”

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It directs the focus away from you

Not that you should be deflecting any blame for disingenuous purposes. After all, the presumption is that you did something wrong. But saying thank you puts the onus on the other party to be gracious in turn, because you’re doing exactly that despite being subjected to criticism.

After all, reaching a resolution requires the cooperation of two parties. Saying thank you directly puts the ball back in the other person’s court, showing that you get why they’re upset and you’ll work on doing better in the future.

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