Ask An Adult: Why Do We Say Sorry All The Time? And How Can We Stop?!
The Debrief: Sorry, would you mind reading this article? Sorry we just thought it'd be useful. Sorry. #sorrysosorry.
The other day I trapped my finger in the backdoor to my flat and immediately apologised to it. It was then that I realised: if you've started saying sorry to objects that are not sentient, then you have an apology problem.
Once you discover this, you'll notice it all the goddamn time, and in pretty much all situations. 'Sorry, could I get a glass of tap water?', 'Sorry here's your notebook', 'Sorry where is the nearest hospital?' etc etc. Even at work, when it's my job to occasionally ask people to do things, or in a restaurant, when I'm paying for people to do things, I act like I'm asking them this massive embarrassing favour. This must stop, because it's a) irritating for everyone around me b) irritating for me and c) not a good thing to do. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Anita Abrams: 'You're essentially talking yourself out of your right to be respected - you’ve decided you won’t get what you're asking for if you assume it, so you’ve got to dress it up and make it more palatable for the other party.'
I'm not the only one who agrees with this. Laura, who is 28 and has an impressive job in advertising, finds that she's constantly apologising as a reflex before asking for something from her assistant. 'It's exhausting, because I have to ask her a million things a day - so I apologise a million times a day,' she says. 'I stopped doing it when I realised that the guys I work with only apologise when they actually mean it. Like, when something's going wrong.'
This is the annoying thing about the apologising - it tends to be a female trait. While it's not necessarily anything to do with gender, Dr Abrams believes it's certainly to do with authority and, unfortunatel, most figures of authority are male (Only 34% of managers in the UK are female). 'While it's more about authority than gender, women tend to appear self-abasing when asking men or things, because it's a way of making sure he doesn't go on the aggressive. We project, often where it doesn’t exist, and go on the submissive because we presume that the other party is likely to go on the aggressive - so it's coming from our expectations. Either what we’ve experienced in the past or we imagine might happen.'
Which makes it even more irritating because, often, there's little reason for you to give up all your power and respect - you're doing it to yourself. Like when you lie awake before a big day, thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong; it comes from no basis other than your own, overactive, imagination. You might as well go to your boss and act like a French Spy in order to get maternity leave/a pay rise/borrow a pen, because you've convinced yourself that the only way they'll warm to you is if you wield a baguette. I abased myself in front of a door, for god's sake.
In saying that, the power of the well-placed apology and the well-placed submissive approach is great - if you can control it. If you lower your position when trying to get what you want, and it works, then that's a bit of successful manipulation that comes in handy now and again. 'Being calculating is often seen as negative, but it's all about your motives. If you apologise when you don't feel it, but you know the situation could be improved because of it, then that's just being clever,' says Dr. Abrams. 'It’s very good to train yourself to anticipate, to sense that this is one of those situations where it's important not to add fuel. It's important to back down, and speak in an even quiet voice. In movies they say "Put… the gun… down" because it's the best way to communicate in high-stress environments.'
It's the hallmark of someone in control of their emotions, and when Dr Abrams asks me why I think I apologise all the time rather than when it's most needed, I don't really have an answer other than 'I often feel like I've probably done something wrong'. Which comes down to, yawn, self esteem - whether that's about you, or your position.
'You have to look at the apologiser for the cause of the problem, rather than the person they're apologising to,' she replies.'It's very often nothing to do with what the other party is feeling or is likely to react with, it’s more than half to do with the person who anticipates the response.' Which means yes, it is you. And don't start saying sorry for saying sorry because that'll be even more irritating.
So how do you stop doing it, aside from hitting yourself in the face every time you say the word 'sorry'? 'Start by not apologising when asking people to do things that are expected of them. A lot of women are worried about asking for things that they are required by law to have - like taking holiday, maternity leave, that sort of thing,' suggests Dr Abrams. 'Approach them as an equal, and use words like 'we' rather than 'I': 'We’ve got to do this' 'We're behind on this'. It makes all the difference, rather than you begging.'
This is something that Tanya started doing about a year ago, and she's found it's got her serious results. 'At first I had to go back over my emails and almost physically stop myself from apologising while speaking, but gradually it becomes second nature. And you stop feeling bad, and worrying about everyone thinking you're rude,' she says. 'Nobody thinks you're rude. They think you're doing your job!'
If anything, it gains the respect from those around you who don't have to listen to you apologise every other minute. 'When you start apologising only when you mean it, your feelings will be much more sincere and quite arresting,' says Dr Abrams. 'lt will stop you in your tracks, your behaviour will completely alter your success rate and affect people around you, positively.'
So try it. Next time you feel a sorry erupting, just don't effing say it. You'll appear way more powerful, you'll get taken more seriously, and more importantly, you'll just feel way more kick-ass. Plus, it beats pretending to be a French Spy.
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At work? With your gran?
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