Consider that you might be saying “I’m sorry” when you really mean “thank you.”

Share story

Let’s get one thing clear: Apologies are not signs of weakness. Knowing how and when to say “I’m sorry” is an adult skill that projects strength, confidence and integrity. Being able to show vulnerability while acknowledging your part in a problem is crucial to solid relationship-building. Conversely, an inability to admit when you’ve made a mistake or to express sincere regret is the sure sign of a fragile, immature ego.

That being said, saying “Sorry” or “I’m sorry” a dozen times a day dilutes these words to the point of meaninglessness. And, yes, it can make you look like a bit of a wimp. Even worse is counting on “I’m sorry” to get you out of hot water for repeating the same negative behavior over and over.

A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself apologizing several times a day without much thought, for all manner of things, then you might want to rethink this behavior. No one screws up that much. For you, “I’m sorry” has become an unfortunate tic, and it might be a good idea to tweak your vocabulary and your image.

Here’s an idea: Try turning the focus away from yourself by saying “thank you” instead. Has a co-worker pointed out a small error in your work? Show some class by exclaiming, “Thank you! Good catch!”

Were you five minutes late to a routine meeting? Tell everyone, “Thanks so much for waiting,” and then get down to the business at hand.

Did you just have to ask for clarification for the second, third or fourth time? Look that person in the eye and say, “Thank you for your patience. I really appreciate it.”

Indeed, “thank you” may be what you really wanted to say in the first place.

The beauty of this approach is that acknowledging your colleagues’ forbearance rewards and reinforces their behavior. At the same time, being more sparing with apologies renders them more powerful when it is time for genuine contrition.

Do give some thought to your delivery, however. A too-breezy, too-blithe tone can come off as entitlement and just end up annoying people. Your “thank you” needs to sound as sincere and humble and real as an “I’m sorry” would.

Seattle Times Explore columnist Karen Burns
Seattle Times Explore columnist Karen Burns