If you ask any one of my students what it means to be “raining cats and dogs” or what exactly is the “rule of thumb,” they will proudly tell you the etymology of those clichés. (But, since my students’ identities are confidential, you can ask in the comments of this blog.) State level tests used to use clichés to assess whether or not students understood the theme of a passage. I had no choice but to teach them, and learn for myself, what it meant for a “stitch in time to save nine” in order for my students to save themselves from self-induced shame of a test score that tested nothing. (Can you pick up on my passion for the worthlessness of formal assessments?)
I have a long history of being fixated with word choice. In college, I wrote an extensive paper attacking feminists for trying to change the English language by taking “man” out of words like “woman” and replacing it with “womyn.” Or, changing the word “history” to “herstory.” First, take it up with Latin; there is an etymological reason “man” and “his” appear in a ton of words. Second, shouldn’t we have been devoting our energy to ACTUAL problems like equal pay, reproductive rights, or domestic violence. (I’m not picky; any one of those is worth fighting for.)
The meaning behind hackneyed phrases and proper word choice is not limited to standardized tests or creative activism. Neither is my deep passion for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. What is left out from that gem of a slogan is the option to say…nothing. Or, confess that you do not know what to say.
You Are Not Really Sorry
If you remember my blog, Wife Points for Mrs. Smarty Pants, you know I am a fan of the Urban Dictionary. This resource contains all of the content to show your kids you are cool and often contains words that bully their way into traditional dictionaries. That’s where I learned about the sorry syndrome. The hallmarks of this disorder are using the words “I’m sorry” as filler in situations where you lack the true words to express your feelings. Here are some examples of what may be beneath your faux-pology:
- “I don’t understand.”
- “I accidentally made physical contact with you.”
- “I’m trying to avoid an argument.”
- “I am worried that I may be too assertive or passionate about a situation.” (I’m sorry but changing the English language to inaccurately reflect the Latin root of a word is a self-important, feckless task.”)
- “I knew it was wrong but don’t like the consequences of being caught.”
I am adding to the list. There are times when “I’m sorry” is used as a filler. It’s meaning is no better than “um,” “uh,” or, the any other 80’s equivalent of “like.” Here are some of the situations the most authentic well-wisher fills the unknown space with “I’m sorry”:
- To express condolences for the death of a loved one (including pets)
- To express solidarity for a friend who has suffered an injustice
- To express compassion for a physical, emotional, or psychological pain
Believe it or not, science has taken up the cause of trying to make the world a better place by studying apologies. There have been TED talks and studies that explain how to apologize and the significant positive psychological effects to both parties when that process is completed correctly.
In a (Apologetic) Nutshell
There are times when you need to provide an authentic apology. The first time I heard of the three parts to an apology was when I saw Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” on YouTube. I have expanded on his bullet points to be a little more specific.
- Step 1: Tell them what you feel: Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry”. We have already shown how those words in isolation are ineffective. “I’m sorry” is more effective when for apologies when you express remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry AND sad that my comment caused you embarrassment.” Warning: stop there. You will ruin everything if you get defensive: “I’m sorry that you are overly sensitive about this topic and got embarrassed.”
- Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had: This part is hard because it necessitates a few demerits to your ego. The key to success is empathy. You need to connect with the feeling, not agree with why that feeling is present in the person to whom you are apologizing. Simply trying to understand their feelings, even confessing that you are struggling with that understanding, is the key. Warning: do not explain the reference for when you experienced those feelings; this is not about you and your hurt.
- Step 3: Make the situation right: It’s no coincidence that governments make reparations to ethnic groups as an act of forgiveness for historical travesties. Authentic apologies include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Be creative: if you embarrassed someone, is there a way to help them regain some credibility? If not, can you help them restore some of the self-esteem lost by your mistake? Warning: don’t make stuff up if you don’t know; ask the person whose forgiveness you are seeking how to make it up to them. No negotiations here – just do it!
Spark Notes Summary
Well-wishers are often not well-spoken.All relationships are hard work, like training for a marathon. There are going to be times when healing a relationship is necessary. There are other times when a relationship should be over because its season or reason have passed. Granting forgiveness is helpful for both parties, you know like what’s good for the goose…