Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I'm Not Sorry (Unless I Really Am)


I had an odd experience the other day. I saw a patron engaged in inappropriate behavior, and when came out of my office to put a stop to it, she looked startled. I said something like, "I came out of my office because I saw someone who doesn't work for me behind the circulation desk." Her response startled me: "It's okay. [Explanation of why she'd been back there.]"

The explanation wasn't satisfactory, but in a way that relates back to some policies I need to implement and/or enforce. That wasn't what startled me. No, that was caused by the "It's okay." She said it like I'd apologized, which I hadn't, and she was forgiving and/or reassuring me. I'm still not exactly sure why she responded in that way. One possibility is that I came off as apologetic, but I doubt that. Instead, I suspect it's a cultural thing, and that made me want to write this post.

You see, for a few years now, I've made a point of avoiding variations on the theme of "I'm sorry, but..." unless I am actually sorry. This didn't used to be the case, but it is now. However, since women of a certain age and above (say 12 years old) have been conditioned to apologize for everything, I suspect this patron was responding to the behavior she expect of me instead of my actual behavior. In the words of a friend with whom I discussed the incident, it was probably "an auto-pilot response."

Further, I know the "I'm sorry" impulse is not just a gender thing. I've seen both men and women in my profession (and others) apologize for no reason. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but you can't let your children run around pulling books off the shelves and throwing them at other patrons." "I'm sorry, Professor Doe, but we don't have room in the budget for a ridiculously expensive book that only you will use, and then probably only once." "I'm sorry, Jane Doe, Esquire, but I can't find the case law precedent if you don't give me all the information I need."

Admittedly, there are nuanced ways of interpreting the phrase, but the most obvious is "I apologize for [fill in the blank]." I'm not going to apologize for not being able to find a source with incomplete citation information, or for budget restrictions, or for the IRS being slow to send the 1040 instruction booklets. These are events over which I have little to no control.

There are multiple other reasons why I eradicated "I'm sorry" from my regular speech, even though it's a modern convention of sorts. More than anything else, I made this change because this way it feels like it really means something when I do apologize.

So, no, I'm not sorry, unless I really am. And neither should you be.


  1. Saying "sorry" does not necessarily mean that you're apologizing. If I say to someone "I'm sorry to hear that your father died" I'm not apologizing for having received the news, but am saying that the news pains me ("sorry" coming from a root that means "sore").

    And if we say to someone "I'm sorry, but only staff are allowed in this area" this is using the word "sorry" as a social lubricant, so that our speech doesn't sound rude or abrupt, but even here there's still an echo of the "it pains me" connotation of "sorry"; it can be unpleasant (even painful) to tell someone they're trespassing.

    The dictionaries in your library can confirm that "sorry" is not exclusively apologetic in intent.

    1. Social lubricants are not always the best way to approach situation and can instill more confusion to an already, possibly, tense situation. Also the social lubricant is likely a colloquial that would lead to more confusion in a diverse setting such as a university library with international students or a public library with newly arrived Americans.

      Perhaps your ethnically diverse sangha can explain that to you. :D

    2. The emoticon was a social lubricant too. See? No confusion!

    3. B,

      John already said it, but I want to add my response. I do know that there are meanings to the phrase (and I know how dictionaries work) - and I mentioned that in my post. Also, for some people, "I'm sorry" is more of a tic than a social lubricant.

      Incidentally, as a rude teenager who was hurting from the death of my own father, I responded "Why are you sorry? You didn't kill him, did you?" whenever someone told me that they were sorry to hear about my father's death.

  2. http://xkcd.com/945/

    For me, it varies. "I'm sorry" is useful when a patron asks for a service or item we should reasonably have (i.e. biography of Thomas Jefferson), but we do not (because everyone else in their class is researching Thomas Jefferson). But I try not to apologize to people, just because they're being dicks. "I'm sorry, but your children are a walking noise hazard" doesn't cut it. OTOH, I am unable to say "Will you shut your screech monkeys up", which is sometimes what I feel.

  3. I know I am guilty of saying I am sorry, when I am not actually sorry but attempting to be polite. So, I am stealing the wisdom of not actually saying it, unless I am. I do get a bit irritated when a patron says, "It's okay" or "You're fine" (I know I am fine I am trying to be polite, you are the one doing something wrong) so hopefully not saying "sorry" all the time will help. Thanks!

  4. I think there is a regional difference as well. I am a native New Yorker now living in Virginia. I one heard a great explanation of the southern I'm sorry vs the northern I'm sorry. I wish I could recreate it. It has to do with empathy rather than admitting guilt.