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Over Apologetic? It is Doing More Harm Than Any Good

Here’s what to say instead of “I’m sorry”

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In a survey conducted on 1600 Britishers and 1000 Americans, 73% of Britishers and 71% of Americans would apologize for interrupting someone, and 60% of British people and 58% of Americans would apologize for doing a favor to someone and getting it wrong.


One of the magic words that we are taught right from childhood. Bumped someone? Say sorry. Late? Say sorry. Came in someone’s way? Say sorry. And the more ‘sorry’ you are, up goes the goodness quotient.

But, is saying a lot of sorry a good sign? Does it really do any good?

During his 20-year-old study, Cindy Frantz, a social and environmental psychologist at Oberlin College in the US state of Ohio, states that:

“The purpose of the apology is to help the victim feel heard and understood, and convince them that the perpetrator is not going to do it again.”

Fundamentally, a sorry constitutes an admission of wrong-doing, expression of genuine regret, along with an action plan to rectify the wrong committed.

For some people saying sorry is an extremely difficult task, while there are people who are on the other extreme of the spectrum- who say sorry like we begin a sentence with an upper case!

While we know that not accepting one’s fault is wrong, being apologetic for every other thing might be doing more damage than what meets the eye.

Why are some people more apologetic?

Have you come across someone who starts the sentence with a sorry? Almost every other sentence has one.

Sorry, did I keep you waiting? Sorry, but I need to say this. Sorry, come again.

Come to think of it, we might be one.

There are several reasons people, knowingly and unknowingly, tend to use this word, to the extent that they are not aware that they use it so often.

To please others

Apologizing is usually symbolic of giving into something. When someone apologizes, he/she has accepted the wrongdoing; effectively placing the other person in the righteous place. That is perceived to please people.

In a way “I’m sorry” is used in place of “You’re right”.

But the problem is that one cannot please everyone. And in the process to please everyone, one might lose oneself.

Sense of insecurity

Insecurity stems from low self-esteem.

Sorry, am I rightly dressed for the occasion? Sorry, I had to take that call.

And from insecurity stems the need to be validated, to be approved for everything that one does. Hence, the tendency to be apologetic about everything, because the person is not sure about self and uncomfortable in his/her own skin.

To avoid conflicts & sticky situations

A simple sorry can cut short difficult discussions at length. True. People tend to agree and go along to avoid any conflict of interests. Just bowing down seems a much easier and quicker path.

Another reason some people prefer being sorry than assertive is that they fear disagreeing might cause the relationship to end. The anticipation of extreme outcomes makes them choose ‘sorry’ as a precautionary measure.

To look humble

Humility is a great accessory to greatness, but not at the cost of being apologetic. I have met a couple of people who apologize just to create an aura of fake humility around them. Look at me, despite all my achievements, I am so humble.

Sometimes people think that being apologetic makes them look humble and down-to-earth. It reflects that they are ready to take a step back for a better relationship.

Why is being over-apologetic not good for you?

Imagine Napoleon telling his men, “I am sorry that you had to see a war.” Or Mahatma Gandhi saying the satyagrahis, “I am sorry that you had to bear so much pain.”

Had they been such great leaders? They were not apologetic, because that was what they stood for. They knew it was the right thing. They had clarity.

In an uncalled-for apology that clarity is lost, and is replaced by confusion and doubt.

Creates doubts about one’s ability

An apology undermines the speaker’s words. The listener is no more sure about what they are being told. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation agree that excessive apologizing comes off as a lack of confidence and ability.

“Is he even sure and confident about what he is telling?”

According to psychotherapist Beverly Engel, in her book The Power of an Apology, over-apologizing may make one think that they look nice and caring person, but actually, it sends a message that one lacks confidence and is ineffectual.

Loss of genuineness

“I am sorry I don’t have a pen with me right now.” “I am sorry for not being able to make the projections as committed.”

I have just juxtaposed not having a pen with not keeping my part of a commitment. Are they of the same stature? In the first instance, there is no wrongdoing, whereas the second reflects a lack of accountability, which warrants a pardon.

Too much of mea culpas reduces its essence. When you over apologize in a genuine case, it losses its intensity.

Reflects low self-esteem

Juliana Breines, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island writes that over apologizing emanates from a feeling of inadequacy leading to self-criticism.

When one exhibits low self-esteem, the feeling is reflected by others too. And in such a case, placing trust in someone like that would be very difficult. Being hard at oneself makes it easier for others to lose faith.

Is apology always bad?

So, is ‘sorry’ always bad?
Not at all.

An apology is an admission of wrongdoing or failure to keep one’s commitment and taking responsibility for the outcome of the actions, with a purpose to restore the trust.

It is an act to own up to your mistakes. It is important to note that we should always apologize for things that are in our control and are accountable for. For example, a late project submission, missing an important event, or a dark passage(if my job is to keep it lighted).

An apology must be genuine and expressive. Rather than a plain “I’m sorry”, which is inadequate, “I’m sorry for….” is a better way to express it.

Make your sorry count.

What to say instead of ‘sorry’?

When an overdose of apologies undermines one’s self-esteem, it is time to make some conscious changes. It is advisable to cut back on sorry and say what you really mean.

Be aware when you have apologized and whether that really warranted one. Ask yourself,

“Am I responsible for what I apologized for? Am I accountable for that? Did I have any control over that?”

Once you start being aware of your apologies and check the rationality, the mind automatically becomes conscious. You pause and think. Eventually, you have better control over the issue.

Here is a list of common apologies that can be expressed more positively, without any remorse.

Replacing sorry with gratitude

Showing appreciation saves you from demeaning yourself with an apology. It also in effect helps one take control over the situation without pulling oneself down.

Sorry for being late. Thank you for being patient.

Sorry for calling you again. Thank you for taking the call again.

Sorry for troubling you. I am grateful for your help.

Replacing sorry with a question

It is an easy alternative to averting this overused word.

Sorry, but could you repeat. Could you please repeat?

Sorry(for bumping accidentally). Are you okay?

Being assertive than sorry

Don’t be sorry because you feel it might be of inconvenience to the other person. All you know, it’s their job to do.

Sorry, it does not fit your expectation. I will rework it again.

Sorry, I cannot attend the party. Seems difficult to me. Maybe next time.

Sorry, I am not looking a tad messy. (Never apologize for looks, unless is a part of your dress code.)

Expressing politeness than remorse

What cannot a pinch of politeness do? Takes you out of any situation, even remorse. So, use it more often and go guilt-free.

Sorry to interrupt you. If I may interrupt you here.

Sorry, am I being loud? I hope I am not being loud.

Display understanding than sympathy

We use sorry a lot to empathize with someone. But, it is better to share the emotion the other person is feeling rather than be sorry about it.

I am so sorry that your project got rejected. I can understand how frustrating it is after all the effort you had put into your project.

On a parting note

Tara Swart, neuroscientist, and author of The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life says,

“Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.”

Over apologizing can be exhaustive and annoying to hear. Over time, it looks like a fall-back plan and you lose everyone’s confidence in you.

Being sorry for things that you have no control over, are not accountable for, and are not expected to do, is uncalled for. It works better for one to replace apologies with gratitude and assertiveness which exudes confidence rather than a lack of self-esteem.

Learning to apologize less makes them more genuine, and makes them count.

Everyone is flawed. And it’s perfectly fine. Sorry is not always bad, but use it sparsely or it loses its worth.




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