I have an embarrassing problem. A problem that pokes its tiny stupid head above the surface when I least expect it.
Recently I was walking my dog around the block, admiring the snowdrops coming up in my neighbor’s lawn. Suddenly both Ginger and I had to jump and scatter to avoid collision, because a biker barreling down the sidewalk finally looked up, swerved, and just barely missed us.
Stunned, I shouted out the first words that came to me —
In a moment of heart-stopping shock, before righteous anger set in, before I had time to think through a response that truly reflected the fact that I narrowly missed severe injury, my reflexive reaction was to loudly apologize.
Breaking the “I’m Sorry” habit
“I’m sorry” has been misused and mistreated, to the point that it has lost its meaning. We offer it up in so many situations — sometimes well-meaning, sometimes as a way of just ending the conversation and moving on to something else. Thus, many of us don’t trust it even when someone sincerely speaks it to us.
I know I need to stop saying “I’m sorry” when someone nearly bicycles over my body, but the problem is that those two little words have become habit. It comes out of me automatically, the same way I say “buh-bye” before I hang up the phone. That habit has run and created a life of its own, so much so that I have to stop and plan up a different response just to keep from being redundant and/or disingenuous.
So I’m trying something new, something I learned from a friend.
A note about this friend: he is white, male and Christian. It’s important to name this, because his advice for breaking the “I’m sorry” habit could only come from a particular kind of privilege.
His advice couldn’t be more simple: Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” say, “Thank you for understanding.”
Ten minutes late for a meeting? I got stuck in the store, thank you for understanding!
Big typo in an important email? Oops! I’ll spell-check next time. Thanks for understanding.
The hard conversation you’re in just got harder because you told them something they really didn’t want to hear? I know this is hard. It’s important to me that you know this. Thank you for understanding.
It’s taken me a lot of hard work to imagine what it must be like for my white, male Christian friend to say thank you instead of I’m sorry. Not everyone was born and has walked through the world believing they have power and are worthy of other people’s best behavior.
I’m so grateful for that bit of perspective.
Because the truth is, when you say you’re sorry to someone, you are giving up power. This is something women and people in minority groups are trained from a young age to do very easily and very quickly. As a woman, I am praised when I give up power and show vulnerability, like a puppy baring her belly. Even when doing this proves time and time again not to benefit me.
Power is a valuable thing — we don’t need to give it up every chance we have.
On the other hand, saying “thank you for understanding” is a gesture in sharing power. It acknowledges that the other person has a part to play in this interaction, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. It assumes they are merciful. It assumes they understand. It assumes they know what it is like to be human and make a mistake.
Most of all, it removes the shame of the thing which has happened, and replaces it with a note of gratitude. Thank you for understanding says, I acknowledge what I did. I see you, and I trust you that you see me — a human being who is a work in progress. A person who is just like you.
Maybe Biker Guy already knew this.
After I steadied myself and got my wits back, I yelled out to him, “Actually, I’m not sorry! You’re not supposed to bike on the sidewalk!” (I had to yell this very loud. Biker Guy was already at the end of the block.)
“You’re right,” he yelled back. “My bad!”
And the strangest thing happened. I started to laugh.