A few days ago, I stopped to get coffee on my way to work. Once there, I also decided to add a breakfast sandwich to my order. It was one of those mornings where I had rushed out without throwing a yogurt into my bag, and I knew I’d be a total zombie later if I didn’t eat anything soon. I ordered a turkey sausage and egg white sandwich on a croissant along with my coffee, paid for both, and stepped to the side.
There was only one employee on duty, so she was doing everything – the register, the food, and the coffee. After she handed me my change, she turned away to pour the coffee and prepare the sandwich I had ordered. Upon realizing this, I glanced over my shoulder. Only then did I notice the two men in line behind me; one was checking his cell phone and the other looked annoyed that someone wasn’t immediately ready to help him.
Almost without thinking, I looked at the man behind me, smiled, and said, “Sorry.”
As I walked out of the coffee shop a few minutes later, I started thinking about this entire exchange. I couldn’t help but challenge my own behavior. Why did I feel the need to apologize? What was I actually apologizing for? I had done nothing wrong – I was a paying customer and had simply ordered a sandwich. It wasn’t my fault that there wasn’t another employee on staff at the moment. I didn’t cut the line to get in front of those two men; I had been there first. So why did I feel guilty enough to even say that I was sorry?
The incident was on my mind for the remainder of the day – so much so that I began to actively keep track of how many times I said “sorry” throughout the rest of the afternoon. And I’ll confess it right now – I apologize dozens of times a day. Literally – dozens.
If someone bumps into me, I’ll say that I’m sorry. If a friend and I start talking at the same time, I apologize. When I need a co-worker or student to repeat what they’ve just said because they spoke too quietly, I’ll pose it as a question: “Sorry?”
It would be almost comical, except it’s become instinct, so it isn’t really funny at all.
When we’re young, we are told that we need to ask nicely for what we want. We are taught “please” and “thank you.” We learn to say “excuse me” to kindly acknowledge that we are in another person’s physical bubble. These words and phrases become embedded in our vocabulary. Politeness is, of course, a good thing – but where do we draw the line between common courtesy and simply apologizing for our very existence?
As a woman, I can’t help but look at this from a female standpoint. Is there a reason – albeit a subconscious one – that I feel the need to sheepishly apologize when I didn’t even do anything wrong? To go one step further, do I really need to shoulder the blame for others – the barista, for being the only one on staff, or a stranger, who bumps into my handbag on the street?
The answer, of course, is no. Actually – hell no.
When we over-use phrases, they lose their meaning. When words fly off of our tongues without an afterthought, they become void of all weight – they merely turn into sounds of mindless chatter. Eventually, there will be little difference between the quick “sorry!” that one says mid-conversation and an actual apology that is well-deserved.
It’s time to trust ourselves a little bit more. We are capable of making decisions and owning them – we know right from wrong. We should find strength in understanding ourselves and knowing when we’ve done something that actually warrants an apology.
We are capable of walking through life confidently, taking pride in our movements and choices – even ones as simple as deciding to buy a breakfast sandwich from the only employee on duty.
Quite simply, it boils down to this:
We do not need to say we’re sorry for wrongdoings that do not exist. The sooner we embrace this as truth, the stronger we will become.