That one didn’t take me long to realize once I had been asked – though I went more than thirty years before ever being asked. (By the way – think about your favorite word! What it is, and more importantly, your reasons why may tell you a lot about yourself.)
Lately I’ve discovered quite by accident that I have a least favorite word, too. If I could never hear it again I’d be a happy man.
That word is “sorry.”
It’s a poorly-designed word, for one. It has multiple meanings, but the two biggest ones are “I am expressing sympathy to you for the plight that you’re currently experiencing,” and “I claim responsibility for, and offer apology for, something bad that has happened to you.” Those are absolutely NOT the same sentiment, but the word “sorry” being the proxy for both means that the two are often conflated. (It can also mean “pitiful” or “regretful, but not towards anyone in particular,” but those are just negative sentiments to avoid entirely; basically, this word is like a Swiss Army Knife where all the options suck.)
For two, it’s not solutions-oriented, and I’m a solutions-oriented guy. One time, many years ago, a guy I knew was being reckless with a piece of sporting equipment in my vicinity and accidentally hurt me with it. It was a genuine accident, but it was also a direct result of very reckless behavior that he shouldn’t have been engaged in. His immediate response was to apologize by offering me the same opportunity to hurt him back with the same piece of equipment. I sort of get where he was coming from, but that’s an insane idea to me. I didn’t want revenge; I wanted him to change his behavior such that he never hurt me again. I honestly didn’t even care if he was sorry – I cared that I didn’t get injured.
Both sympathy and apology are only as good as the behaviors they create.
In both cases, “sorry” feels very passive. In the “sympathy” sense, it’s nice that you’re showing empathy to me, but honestly that and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee. I’m not the kind of person who vents just to vent; if I’m talking about my problems, it’s to brainstorm a solution or ask advice, not to just complain for the sake of complaining. It’s not in my nature. I know a lot of people do actually do that, just complain to blow off steam, but that usually results in me getting scolded for offering a solution – if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told “I didn’t really want your advice, I just wanted to blow off steam,” I’d be a rich man.
And even in the “apology” sense, “sorry” just doesn’t do anything. I don’t want you to feel bad for what you’ve done – I just want you to not do it again. My aim isn’t to harm you, even by expecting mandatory guilt. My goal is to not have that negative action happen again. I didn’t want that guy to get an eye for an eye, I wanted him to stop being reckless with his toys, at least around me.
A separate reason I don’t like the word “sorry” is the insidious way it creeps into people’s normal modes of speech and infects their self-image. It’s this negative mentality that makes people apologize for just existing. “Sorry, could you pass me the butter?” What are you sorry for? I’m happy to pass you the butter!
People do that constantly. They apologize for just existing, or for interacting in any way with another person. It becomes this default introduction to any interaction you have with someone, no matter how benign.
And lastly, it’s so watered-down that it feels utterly insincere and insufficient in almost any of the above circumstances. If you catch someone saying “Sorry to bother you, I just need to ask you a question,” and you call them on it, you’ll get a confused look. “If you needed to ask me a question, why would you be sorry? That’s totally reasonable. What exactly are you apologizing for?” They won’t know, they won’t have a good reason for saying it, it’s just infected them.
The flip side of that is that it’s often used in a sarcastic, dismissive way as well. “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am.” So… you’re not really sorry in any sense, then. You’re not sympathetic or apologetic. I hate sarcasm, and anything that makes it easier is a tool I’m happy to throw away.
But remember that whole bit about me being solutions-oriented? I’m not here to just complain! I’m here to solve problems! Here are some alternatives for the typical uses of “sorry.”
When you want to express sympathy: Don’t say “I’m sorry.” If someone tells you that a loved one passed away, don’t tell them you’re sorry. Their car broke down, don’t say it. Don’t ever say it. If you want to express sympathy, do it sincerely – “I hear you, loud and clear. If there’s anything I can do that would help, I’m very willing. If that just means you need someone to listen and really believe and acknowledge you, I’m absolutely here for that. Just let me know.” If you think that’s too many words, and it’s easier to just say “I’m sorry,” then too bad. Sincerity must oft replace brevity.
When you want to apologize: Take ownership! “That was my fault, and I apologize and take responsibility for it. I’ll change my behavior so that doesn’t happen again, and I’m open to feedback on how to make those changes.” Don’t just apologize, make it mean something.
When you fear you’re slightly inconveniencing someone: Thank them instead. Don’t say “sorry to bother you, but I need some feedback on my project.” Say “Can I get some feedback on my project when you have a few minutes? Thanks so much!” Gratitude is superior to apology any day of the week.
When you want to be sarcastic: Don’t.
If you use these methods, you’ll find first and foremost that they’re more work. That’s intentional and a huge, huge upside. If the word “sorry” has become an easy shorthand for the kinds of deep but difficult interactions you have with others, that’s a problem. If the simple little word has replaced your sincere ability to express sympathy, apologize genuinely, or even interact with others confidently, then it’s doing so much damage to you that you should strike it from your lexicon forever.
It’s a sorry excuse for a word.