Nearly thirty years ago, I was selling advertising for a local resident magazine. During one of the sales meeting, the manager said something I’ll never forget. Its impact was so powerful that I can still play it back in my memory.
He was a handsome, well-dressed young man, a few years younger than I. He was a constant motivator and didn’t need to wait for a sales meeting if he thought he could offer helpful advice.
But at this particular meeting, he was discussing ways to posture ourselves during a sales pitch. I can still hear him saying, with a slight Middle Eastern accent, “Rather than telling someone you’re sorry, say I apologize.” I don’t remember much after that, probably because those words were replaying in my mind over and over.
“I’m sorry” was an all-too-common phrase that frequently came blurting out of my mouth. For those moments when I made a mistake, no matter how severe or harmless the transgression was, my default reply carried the same amount of remorse for every response. I know that in the past, I had told someone “I apologize”; it wasn’t a novel idea. However, growing up under a constant cloud of shame likely persuaded me that this was the best and most appropriate response.
Intrinsically, there’s nothing wrong, offensive, or deceitful when telling someone you’re sorry. What it does imply is a stronger, much harsher admission of guilt, embarrassment, or shame that may inadvertently affect our confidence or self-esteem. There is no positive reason to unnecessarily bring up or promote negative emotions brought on by these triggered and habitual responses. By constantly repeating you’re sorry, there’s a chance we can negatively influence our own personal healing and growth.
Interestingly, the act of apologizing has had an awkward evolution itself. For centuries and perhaps millennia, apologizing was something the male species was not supposed to consider much less let those words slip out of their mouths. Fathers would sternly, or sometimes violently, punish their sons anytime they believed there was an apologetic look in the young lad’s eyes.
In 1949, the actor John Wayne, playing the character of Captain Nathan Brittles in the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, spoke the infamous words, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” No doubt these words had far too much influence and power over desperate fathers trying to raise macho sons.
First of all, “Never apologize,” as a blanket statement is fraught with conjecture. Okay. I apologize. Let me be more direct. It’s the worst advice ever! Although I am not one for absolutes, never apologizing can also be translated into, “I’m so awesome I’ve never done anything wrong to hurt anyone ever.” The only time I would advise someone to never apologize is if their dream were to become a narcissist.
We all make mistakes, and accidents are inevitable; it’s part of the human condition. If one of our blunders inadvertently affects someone else, an apology is appropriate and not a sign of subjugation or weakness. It would be utterly ridiculous for anyone to interpret a simple apology in any other way.
Apologies have their purpose. For those times when our missteps are more severe than we anticipated, it may cause us to reflect on our actions and change future behaviors, and hopefully influencing us to become kinder and more thoughtful. It can also create a path to empathy towards others. Apologies are not meant to be a punishment, nor should they initiate feelings of shame. While apologies can have an impact on the person hearing our words, none of us have the power nor ability to dictate precisely how others should interpret them. In most cases, it’s a gesture of common courtesy.
Apologies are a reaction to the unavoidable, so how we learn to react to them may also be a sign of our growth. Thankfully, we can reject and cast aside the archaic, masculine-based ideology of apologies. We no longer have to pretend nothing happened or feel we must hide in shame. We can take this once uncomfortable topic and use it as a steppingstone for personal growth and transformation.
The next time you find yourself impulsively telling someone you’re sorry, try to stop or even correct yourself and instead smile and say, “I apologize…it’s a sign of growth.”