This one goes out to my AFAB readers. I have a question for you: If I asked you to guess how many times you say “sorry” on any given day, what would you guess?
Now, here’s a follow-up question: How many times did you say “sorry” because you’d actually done something wrong and needed to apologize for it?
I’m guessing you didn’t answer the same number both times.
I targeted my very scientific survey to my fellow AFABs because we, in particular, are socialized into having apologize for our existence, but the truth is, we can all fall victim to over-apologizing. We apologize for having questions. We apologize when we have to disagree or say no. I mean, shit, we apologize for getting bumped into (yes, when people bump into us, we’re the ones who apologize!).
But none of these things are apology-worthy offenses. They’re minor inconveniences at worst. But we apologize anyway because we feel like a burden. We use “sorry” to disguise our true feelings, like discomfort, anger, or shame. We say “sorry” because it feels like what we’re supposed to do.
I would argue, however, that all this does is dilute the actual power of the word “sorry.” When you apologize for everything, apologies become meaningless. Think back to the last time a celebrity did something unruly and had to apologize for it. Did we forgive them? Or did that apology feel so empty they ended up with an “X Is Over Party” hashtag anyway?
It’s all well and good to complain about all the things society does wrong but I’m a pragmatist at heart. I try not to complain unless I can offer a solution, which is what I intend to do here. Since my specialty is language, that’s the angle I’ve chosen to cure our societal “sorry” problem. Today, I offer you 7 things to say instead of sorry.
If you bump into someone, or someone bumps into you, you can just say “excuse me” and that will complete the transaction. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you can say “pardon me.” I’ve also discovered that this phrase works as a way to get attention. You don’t have to apologize for wanting attention, especially if you have a really awesome idea.
Language nerd side note: I study a lot of foreign languages for fun and, so far, English is the only language I've come across that uses "I'm sorry" for harmless moments like these. Spanish uses things like disculpe or perdón, Japanese has sumimasen, Irish says gabh mo leithscéal (literally "take my excuse"), but none of these languages use their version of "I'm sorry" unless they've actually hurt or offended someone. As far as I can tell, we only do it in English. We are the weirdos. It's us.
Apologizing feels like the right thing to do but it can actually make a situation uncomfortable for the person you’re apologizing to. But gratitude always feels good. People love to feel appreciated. Seriously. Try it! The next time you’re late, for example, don’t say “sorry I’m late.” Say, “thank you for waiting,” or, “thanks for being so patient.” I guarantee it’ll make everyone involved feel better.
“I Don’t Understand.”
I picked up a nefarious trick while working in Retail Hell. When a customer would spew incomprehensible garbage at me, I wouldn’t ask them to repeat themselves or say I didn’t understand what nonsense they’d just muttered. Instead, I’d say—in that obnoxiously high Retail Weenie Voice™—“I’m sorry?”
I realize now how stupid this speech habit is, because not once was I ever actually sorry that old people don’t know how to enunciate. Speak up, asshole.
“I Was Wrong.”
The internet as a whole could really benefit from this one. Did you know that admitting you’re wrong about something will NOT, in fact, instigate the end of the world or your immediate heat death? It’s true! I can prove it. I’m wrong all the time. I was wrong that the Haunted Graveyard theme from Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was a Castlevania song. I was wrong to think that having a younger sister was a curse or a punishment (plot twist: I now love her THE MOST). And I was extremely wrong to think that going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh was a good idea.
Despite all these times I’ve been wrong, I am still here, and I even have good things happen to me and people who love me. This could be you!
“I’m Going To…”
You may have heard of Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, which talks about the different ways people express and understand affection. Chapman has since expanded his love languages to also discuss different ways people express anger and the different ways people apologize. One of those ways—the one I default to, according to the quiz on his website—is to make restitution, or actively do something to change the situation for the better.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I complained about how we’ve watered down apologies to a point of insincerity and uselessness? Using action to make amends is a fantastic way to restore some teeth to your apology. If you actually did fuck up and you actually do want to make up for it, do something to make things better. But be sure to give the one you offended a heads-up first. Surprises can backfire tremendously and you’re already in the hot seat, bud. Don’t make it worse.
Alternatively, if you don’t know what you could do to make a situation better, you can always ask, “How can I help make this right?”
Oprah said it best: “No” is a complete sentence.
You don’t have to apologize for not wanting to do something. You don’t have to apologize for being uncomfortable around your best friend’s toxic asshole boyfriend. In fact, you don’t have to apologize for advocating for yourself at all. That is your job. No one else is going to do it. For the first and possibly only time in my life, I suggest following former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s advice and just say NO.
Nothing at All
I learned this trick from my journalism classes. Sometimes, the best thing to say in a conversation is not a goddamn thing. People don’t like silence. It makes them uncomfortable. So, when confronted with silence, most people will just keep talking, which saves you the trouble of having to do any talking yourself. Either that, or they’ll go away, which solves your problem even more effectively. Wins all round.
Stop Apologizing Stupidly
While I encourage anyone and everyone to read this blog and take the advice therein to heart, I want to take a moment to shout out my fellow AFABs once more, because we are the ones most susceptible to Apologizing Stupidly Syndrome (ASS). It’s not our fault; we were trained to blame ourselves for everything, just as much as AMABs were trained to blame us for everything. That is the patriarchy at work, doing exactly what it was designed to do.
But one deceptively simple way to push back against the patriarchy is to simply stop apologizing over dumb shit like getting bumped into by strangers or having opinions on the internet. Among the saner parts of the world, this will be seen as perfectly harmless. But it will also push back against the more aggressive, crazier parts of sexism that the most sexist among us is convinced no longer exists because women can like, have jobs and vote now. What, you’re gonna not apologize for existing in MAN spaces now, too? What’s next?! Equal pay?! Guaranteed equality protections under the United States Constitution?! TAX-FREE TAMPONS???
(For the record, yes, all those things are next.)
I’m not saying never apologize for anything ever again. Chances are, you’re gonna do something that definitely warrants an apology between now and the day you die. All I’m saying is that you should save your apologies for those important moments so that, when you do have to say you’re sorry, it’ll actually mean something.
And if you don’t like what I have to say, well, I’m just not the least bit sorry about it.
AFAB: Assigned Female At Birth, an acronym typically used to describe cisgender females in the transgender community.
AMAB: Assigned Male At Birth, an acronym typically used to describe cisgender males in the transgender community.