Ending the 'Sorry' Cycle

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Tim Green / Flickr

Every once in a while, a cultural conversation will break out: Someone will castigate women for overusing the loaded phrase “I’m sorry.” Someone else will respond with a defense of “I’m sorry.” Someone else will respond to that. The someones involved—they will often, but not always, be women—will make some really good points about gender and empowerment and the way language binds the two. They will often lighten the mood by making jokes about being sorry for not being sorry, or not being sorry for being sorry, and the jokes will often be funny. And then the conversation will end, and everyone will get on with their lives, and the women of the English-speaking world will continue saying “I’m sorry” just as much as they did before, which will lay the groundwork for the cycle to continue again, indefinitely and (un)apologetically.

Which brings us to this week, and an essay Lena Dunham posted to LinkedIn: “Sorry, Not Sorry: My Apology Addiction.” In it, Dunham noted:

Apologizing is a modern plague and I’d be willing to bet (though I have zero scientific research to back this up) that many women utter “I’m sorry” more on a given day than “Thank You” and “You’re Welcome” combined. So many of the women I know apologize like it’s a job they were given by the government (we’ll save the whys of that for a massive sociology text). We rush to say it when we’re interrupted. We scream it across a crowded restaurant when someone else arrives late so we've lost our table. We mutter it when a man walks too close to us on the street. As I write this, a Mister Softee truck is singing its grating tune right below my window and I want to run and apologize to the driver for how insane he’s making me.

It’s true: We women do say “sorry” a lot. I say “sorry” a lot. Here is the problem, though, or at least the situation: I will very likely keep saying it a lot—not because I spend my days regretful and/or culpable, but because of the same basic reason that I pepper my speech with likes and ums and other inelegant filler words: because (sorry, sorrynotsorry, sorrynotsorrynotsorry, etc.) that is just the way I talk. I don’t want, or actively choose, to say “like” all the time (or to up-speak or vocal-fry or whatever other tendencies women’s utterances are being policed for at the moment); I just do it. Same with “sorry.” It’s an unthinking tic. And that helps to explain why the sorry cycle is a cycle to begin with: Speech habits, speech being what it is, are immensely difficult to break.

I suspect a lot of women out there are in that same sorry (but also not sorry) boat. And that’s okay! It’s a big boat! As the great Ann Friedman put it, “To assume that our verbal tics are always negative is to assume that the goal of all speech is the same. Which of course is patently ridiculous.”

But the bigger problem with all this is that the sorry policing doesn’t tend to recognize “sorry” for what it really is, when it’s used as a like-y, um-y filler word: not an admission of guilt or even of sorrow, but simply a basic expression of empathy. Just as you can read “LOL,” in a text message, as a punctuation mark more than anything else, you can read “I’m sorry” as a kind of semantic symbol: an utterance that conveys emotion more than literal meaning. One that functions as a gesture as much as it functions as a term.

I wrote a little about that during an earlier wave of the sorry cycle—this one brought about when Pantene (yes, the shampoo brand) decided to use an ad campaign as an occasion for sorry-shaming. With all (in this case very necessary) apologies for quoting myself:

In 1997, long after it occurred to women to want shiny hair and shortly after it occurred to them to apologize for that, Deborah Levi wrote an NYU Law Review article called “The Role of Apology in Mediation.” In it, she proposed what she called “a typology of apology,” a breakout of the different forms of contrition people rely on in their day-to-day negotiations with each other. She identified four: “tactical” (acknowledging the other person’s suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the other person’s bargaining behavior); “explanation” (attempting to excuse the offender’s behavior and render it understandable to the other party); “formalistic” (capitulating to an authority figure); and “happy-ending” (accepting responsibility for the bad behavior and expressing regret for it).

And: There are more, too! There’s the non-apology apology, and the sarcastic apology, etc. But mostly there’s the punctuational apology: the one that has very little to do with contrition, and everything to do with cooperation. And it’s that sense of “sorry” that the sorry-shamers often miss: the general recognition of empathy and we’re-in-this-together and I feel you, fellow human that “sorry” can convey.

So while it may well be that, per Dunham’s advice, the best thing, for women and for everyone, is just to end our addiction to “sorry,” with no apologies even for the terribly cold temperature of the turkey ... a more practical place to start might simply be to recognize “sorry” for what it is: so meaningful as to be, practically, meaningless. A gesture, more than a word. One that isn’t fraught because it’s well, naught. An Atlantic reader, during the Pantene-originated sorry cycle, pointed out a tweet that hinted at the best way to put an end to that cycle, once and for all:

What do you think? Are you a “sorry” apologist, or not? Let us know: hello@theatlantic.com.