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Never Say Sorry

I grew up in a house where sorry was a way of life. My mom said it nearly every fourth word. My sister and I inherited this proclivity. No matter what, no matter when, say sorry.

And it’s not just my family - it’s commonplace, all over America. We teach our kids, “Now, say you’re sorry.” Sorry is everywhere, common as chapstick.

But recently, I’ve been trying something radical and new. To never, ever, say I’m sorry.

This might sound crazy or dickish - but it’s not. The reason comes from a Thai-infused insight I had, a few months ago.

Saying sorry is about your ego, not the person offended.

We say sorry to make ourselves feel better. It doesn’t do anything to help the person who’s actually been harmed.

Think that’s bluster or provocation?

Then disprove it. Think of one specific time that someone telling you they were sorry made you feel better, genuinely, deep in your core. I’d bet it’s harder than you’d like to come up with a good example.

Most of the time, when we say “I’m sorry”, what we mean is “my intentions were good, and I feel sad.” But, if we spin the perspective a bit, we can see what’s actually coming across.

Here’s the scene:

You’re biking along the street, turn a corner, and a pedestrian catches you by surprise. You clip their arm, hard.

You immediately stop, and turn to them. “Ohmygod, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you and didn’t mean to hit you!”

Feels ok, like empathy, right? It’s not. Your mind is playing tricks on you. Watch.

Scene 1: Saying Sorry.

Now you’re sitting, waiting for a bus, and across the street, someone speeding by on a bike clips a pedestrian on the arm, hard. Instantly, it’s clear the pedestrian is in a lot of pain.

The bicyclist immediately stops, turns to the pedestrian, and says, “Ohmygod! I feel sad right now! I didn’t intend for this to happen!”

Hunh. There’s no acknowledgement of the hurt arm, of how the person might feel, or any attempt to help. The entire focus of the bicyclist’s statement is on them. Now, watch this one.

Scene 2: Acknowledge, Empathize, Remedy.

You’re sitting, waiting for a bus, and across the street, someone speeding by on a bike clips a pedestrian on the arm, hard. Instantly, it’s clear the pedestrian is in a lot of pain.

The bicyclist immediately stops, turns to the pedestrian, and says, “Oh my god, I just clipped your arm! Geez, that has to hurt. What can I do to help?”

That, I suspect, feels differently. Instead of deflecting the action and focusing on themselves, this person has directly accepted responsibility, focused on the injured party, and acted to remedy the problem they’ve caused.

But hang on. We’re good people. We easily spot this, and when it’s us, we do intend well. What’s going on?

Intentions are not reliable narrators.

It’s another case of our intentions leading us astray. Watching someone else do it, I’m sorry, is really clearly an insidious, self-absorbed interaction. But it never feels that way when we say it.

Things get trickier when our egos and our feelings get mixed in, even though the world itself hasn’t changed. It’s like those optical illusions, our brains being fooled about reality by some internal crossed wires.

Our job is not to be tricked. To live open-hearted and open-eyed, and when sorries might be due, to instead engage, full-hearted and with open hands.

Instead of saying sorry, to create a new habit.

Acknowledge. Empathize. Remedy.

Nah, I hate curiousity.