It’s instinctive. A guy bumps into me on his way out of a classroom and the word tumbles out of my mouth: “sorry.”
He isn’t sorry. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge me — he just leaves. Why am I sorry? Did my knee protrude too much into the aisle? Did I draw him to me by some magnetism that forced us to collide? At five feet and two-thirds of one inch, did I simply take up too much space? Why did I feel the need to apologize?
Growing up, I was constantly apologizing. On pedestrian walks and train cars in my hometown of Tokyo, I became accustomed to ducking my head in small bows of apology, muttering sumimasen (“excuse me”) under my breath. Life in a densely populated space makes it inevitable that your attempt to go about your day chafes against someone else’s attempt to go about their day. No one is too troubled by it, but under-the-breath apologies are an unspoken obligation.
After I brought my self-belittling reflex to college, its absurdity dawned on me more and more. I was apologizing for things for which I wasn’t responsible, which had such negligible impact on others that they didn’t warrant apologies, or which didn’t wrong anyone at all. Passing someone in the hallway: “sorry.” Stumbling over a word while making a comment in class: “sorry”. And, many times, being bumped into by people who didn’t even notice: “sorry.” I was apologizing for my mere existence. I was making myself small. I thought it was my obligation not to take up any space at all.
And that wasn’t the only problem. Needlessly apologizing cheapens the act of apologizing. If I said sorry all the time for things that didn’t matter, what did it really mean when I said sorry for things that did? If I wasted the word on trivial things that wronged no one, could it still carry the force of a meaningful apology? In Japanese, there are different words for “sorry” with varying levels of intensity; English, at least to my knowledge, provides a slightly more limited range of options. The word “sorry” had begun to lose its weight.
Last year, I came across a TED article on my Facebook feed that suggested alternatives to “sorry.” At first I thought it was funny. “Pardon me,” used repeatedly, simply becomes a sound substitute for “sorry.” “Thank you” was another suggestion, but an imperfect substitute; it’s a little odd, for example, to thank someone when you step on their toe. But, over time, I realized that TED kind of had a point. When asking friends to wait for me, I started making a conscious effort to avoid apologizing: not “sorry for taking so long,” but “thanks for waiting.”
And that is the greatest magic of quitting saying sorry. The inward-looking shame implied by “sorry” is replaced by the outward-looking gratitude of “thank you.” Instead of berating yourself for the inconvenience you cause to others, you appreciate them for their willingness to give up time and effort for you. Not that I’m particularly grateful when a guy bumps into me in a classroom. And not that I shouldn’t apologize when I bump into someone else. But when I do, I don’t want to feel ashamed for doing it; I want the other person to know how thankful I am that they’re okay with it.
So: I quit saying sorry. Or I’m trying to. Every time I catch myself before I succumb to reflex, and every time I say “thank you for waiting!” to the people I care about, I am reminded that I have the right to take up space. It is pretty liberating.
Yuka Saji | email@example.com