For some people, it’s easy to over-apologise — or borderline grovel — over any perceived inconvenience. If you’re late to meet a friend at a movie, you might offer a breathless, “I’m so sorry,” as if saving you the perfect seat was desperately important to begin with.
For some, apologizing can be a knee-jerk instinct and overused to the point of rendering the sentiment largely meaningless. When you’re sorry for everything, you cease to be sorry at all, which is why we should incorporate some different turns of phrases in lieu of an overused “sorry.”
Why do people over-apologise?
Apologizing can seem like an easy way to mitigate blame or acknowledge responsibility for doing something wrong, however minor. But people who apologise for every little thing, whether it’s showing up five minutes late to a lunch date, hitting the button for the wrong floor on an elevator, or bumping into someone by accident, can actually seem to suffer from low self-esteem.
This is what the psychologist Kelly Hendricks told Psych Central in 2019, explaining: “Those who over-apologise often feel like a burden to others, as if their wants and needs are not important.” The novelist Caroline Leavitt recently described how her tendency to over-apologise was a kind of psychological armour, used to fend off a sense of blame she often felt:
For me, who always felt that any minute someone would be shouting at me or blaming me or mocking me, an apology delivered in advance could soften the blow, or even act like a stop signal.
At times, a sense of needing to seem like a good person — or feeling insecure about potentially not being a good person — might motivate one to apologise more than is necessary, Hendrix noted. Still, there’s a variety of reasons that might compel one to apologise on loop, so the behaviour can’t be chalked up to one issue for everyone. Nonetheless, a lack of confidence and low self-esteem is something of a prevailing theme.
What to say instead of “sorry”
For one thing, you don’t have to make an apology about you, per se. Saying, “I’m so sorry I’m late,” for example, doesn’t necessarily convey the empathy that is characteristic of a real apology. Instead, you can opt for something that takes the other person’s experience into account, like “Waiting for someone who’s chronically late totally sucks,” or “I know that waiting around aimlessly for someone is so frustrating.”
Here’s some other examples:
- Try replacing “I’m sorry to interrupt” with: “I appreciate that thought, but what I wanted to say is…” You’ll notice that leading with your appreciation can serve as a welcome substitute for an apology.
- If you are held up in traffic: It might behoove you to tell someone, “thanks for your patience, traffic was horrendous today,” as opposed to the go-to, “I’m sorry I’m late.”
- When asking someone a favour: Don’t lead with a self-deprecating and sheepish “sorry.” Instead, try saying, “There’s something I’d really appreciate your help with when you have a minute.”
- You can often replace “sorry” with “thank you”: If someone, like a teacher or even a friend points out a mistake you made, it’s better to acknowledge their pointer with gratitude. Saying, “thanks so much for pointing that out to me” suffices in lieu of “sorry.”
- In the workplace, own mistakes through understanding: Often, there’s no need to apologise if a boss or co-worker points out a mistake. Missteps, after all, are human. Rather, try saying something to the effect of “oh, man, I see what I did there. Let me get to work on fixing it.”
If nothing else, delving into the alternatives can help make you more aware of how often you’re (unnecessarily) apologizing in a given day.