Not sorry: the art of saying what you mean

I imagine you, like me, often find yourself stuck behind a family or two at the grocery store, trolleys parked obliquely and faces buried in the shelves trying to decide which brand to buy this week. Alone, you find yourself needing to express to these indecisive souls the need to pass through. And what word do you use to get through? Sorry. Or, that is, at least in Australia. We say "sorry" as we carefully move the trolleys to fit past, we say sorry as we shoulder our way through crowded streets at peak hour while we rush for the train. We say sorry to the assistant serving us at the store while we continue chatting on our phones. We say sorry a lot. Which would be okay, of course, if we didn't need the word when we actually want to apologise.

I'm guilty of over-using the word sorry. I've tried to use it less and, often, am successful. In the US, that same grocery store predicament is resolved with the expression, "excuse me," which sounds great on paper but comes off as a little blunt to my Australian ears. I find myself on the subway in New York getting offended at all these people barging past me saying "excuse me, excuse me" even though their behaviour is not intrinsically different to navigating the train stations in my hometown.

Part of the problem with these interactions is that we, culturally, aren't very good at doing things we perceive to be inconvenient to others. We avoid conflict and confrontation. And thus, if a situation comes up where we may inconvenience another, we say sorry. Or excuse me, depending on which continent you're from. We say sorry for things outside of our control. We say sorry for the weather being too hot or too cold. We say sorry when other people walk into us. We say sorry for speaking up, sorry for speaking too softly, sorry for needing help, sorry for existing. We apologise constantly for things that don't need apologies. And, in the worst of cases, we say sorry to simplify much bigger concepts that demand of us more words.

My ex-boyfriend's dad died when he was in his teens. I never met the man but his presence was palpable every time I visited their family home. I worried that I would never match up to his standards. My ex's mum and I had many conversations about the grief surrounding his death. She said often that there were two comments that she had hated hearing, "we're sorry for your loss," and "he's in a better place now." The offence to the latter is self-explanatory. As a non-religious family there wasn't much thought for heaven and the best place for him was at home with the family who so sorely missed his presence. The former comment, though, sounded empty. It wasn't even an "I" statement. It was a nebulous "we" apologising for something far out of their control. Yes, it's hard to know what to say when someone passes away. But sorry wasn't helpful. Statements like, "I grieve with you," or questions like, "when would you like me to come around and help with the cleaning?" provided comfort or practical assistance at a time when simple things like cleaning might be tremendously overwhelming. How could you say sorry for something in which you had no part?

I realise in saying this that Australia has National Sorry Day, a day of apology to the nation's first peoples for all the harm caused by colonialism. I think this day is tremendously important. None of us were around when the First Fleet landed. Most of us were born after the Stolen Generations. Many of us feel great sorrow for what happened, and the continuing inequalities between white Australians and our Aboriginal community. We need more words to be able to express this. I recognise that Aboriginal people were the first inhabitants of this continent; I recognise that great harm has come to these communities as a result of colonialisation; I will stand for policies that empower Aboriginal people to reach their individual and collective potentials; I will not tolerate racism. I do not want this to happen again and will stand against policies that disempower these communities. If all of that is encompassed in the word "sorry" it's awfully offensive to use the word to communicate to someone that you want to squeeze past their trolley at the supermarket.

Clear, concise and meaningful communication is difficult. And, because most of us don't do it often enough, it can seem odd when someone strives to make each word meaningful. I remember sitting on a bench during Orientation Week of my first degree, eating sandwiches with someone who has become on of my closest friends. I would ask him a question, perhaps something as simple as "how are you enjoying your day?" and would wait so long for a response that I was sure he hadn't heard me. I'd pipe up again and he'd say, "I'm thinking." I have learnt over our many years of friendship the value of pausing before speech. The value of avoiding the umming and ahhing that comes with immediately jumping into an answer. You don't need to apologise for your thought process. Say, "I'm thinking" rather than "sorry, I'm thinking."

At work, things go wrong all the time. Meetings run late; schedules clash; tasks build up over and above the time you have in which to complete them. And so we say sorry. Sorry I'm running late for the meeting, even though I had back-to-back meetings for hours. Instead, say "thank you for waiting" or "what did I miss? I was just in the meeting for X." When tasks pile up, ask someone for help. Don't apologise, instead empower them. Say, "I've got three projects due in the next two days and I won't be able to get them done without help. Do you happen to have any spare time in your schedule? It would be tremendously helpful if you could do some of the little tasks for me." And, I'm sure, there will be a time when you can return the favour.

One of the things that many don't realise about saying sorry all of the time is that it doesn't just devalue the word, it devalues oneself. If you say, "sorry I haven't had a chance to get back to you that" you've put yourself in the inferior position. If you change your wording around and say, "thank you for involving me in the discussion. I've been very busy, can I get back to you next week?" you've managed to express your interest, appreciation and also given the other person a clear timeline of when you may be more free to help them. They may well tell you not to worry. They may tell you that it's urgent, in which case you might want to make time for it. This way, you are opening the doors to a more meaningful conversation that doesn't make the other person's project sound less valuable than your own.

I work in a hospital. Sometimes it's my responsibility to call families with bad news. I often start with "I'm so sorry to be bothering you at this hour" or "I'm sorry to call you about something so serious." I shouldn't say it like that. I do feel bad about the whole situation - waking people at odd hours and delivering bad news are not things that make me happy. But there are better ways to do this. If it's a call to a senior, I could say "thank you for taking my call so late" If it's a discussion with a family about something terrible, sometimes it's better to cut to the chase as they are often expecting the bad news. Say, "I'm calling with some bad news. Are you in a safe space?" There are, of course, times when saying sorry in a hospital setting is completely appropriate. Save the word for those moments. You will need it, and you will want to mean it.

Forming communication habits that help you say what you mean and mean what you say takes time. It takes some courage to change things up. It's hard, particularly when you're touching on difficult topics or saying things that might make the other person upset. Remember that a clear conversation about something difficult doesn't necessarily require the word sorry. Perhaps say, "I want to have a discussion about something difficult. This might not be easy for you to hear but I hope you will listen as I try to explain what I mean. It's not my intention to hurt you." The thought required to say that is much deeper than the more common "I'm sorry to have to tell you this." Pause to reflect before you speak. Pause before you act too, to make sure what you're doing isn't something you may feel deserves an apology later. And when you can't find the words to express yourself, that's okay. You don't need to apologise. Just keep trying.


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