Imagine it’s 7:30 p.m. at Ferris Booth Commons, busier than 1020 on the second night of NSOP. Michael and Jenny are waiting in the main buffet line catching up on their weekends. They’re both wearing backpacks and standing face-to-face.
"Did you go to EC last night?” Michael asks.
“No, I didn’t,” says Jenny.
“My roommate wasn’t feeling well so I stayed in with her."
“Dang, sorry she’s sick. What’s her name again?”
“Maria. Yeah, it sucks! But next time we’re gonna—”
Wait a second. What did he say “sorry” for? I hear that word a hundred times a day. Last spring, Nastassia Maes raised this issue in a Spec opinion piece, urging students to find other, less “demeaning” outlets for what she calls “over-apologizing.” I agree with her main points: People often say “sorry” when no apology is necessary, and kicking this habit can project and foster confidence. But “sorry” is so much more than an apology word—it’s a piece of grammar with a thousand irreplaceable meanings. Sure, young people would all benefit from avoiding it when we aren’t actually sorry, because overusing it reduces the impact of “sorry” when we do use it sincerely. And it’s impossible to ignore the gender dynamics that cause women to say “sorry” far more frequently than men. But the word isn’t going to disappear overnight. So instead of just feeling bad for saying “sorry” so much, we should try to understand why we do it.
Let’s get back to dinnertime at Ferris. Still waiting for their food, Michael and Jenny are chatting and don’t notice when the line moves forward. Jenny sees a distressed first-year, arms full of food, trying to squeeze his way through the line to the drink machines. Michael’s backpack is in his way.
”Sorry,” the first-year says, looking for a way around Michael. Realizing her friend is oblivious, Jenny pulls him out of the way, and, staring at the ground, says “sorry” to nobody in particular.
"Thanks,” the first-year chirps as he passes through. Michael makes eye contact with him as he steps forward. He doesn’t speak.
“Sorry” is used in three non-apologetic ways during this entire interaction. The first, when Michael apologizes to Jenny, is conversational lubricant that carries very little meaning. The normal social response to hearing of someone in poor health is expressing regret, so Michael fulfills his social duty to Jenny’s roommate by saying he is “sorry” for her. Maybe Michael actually feels bad for Maria, but because he doesn’t know her or her circumstances very well, it’s more likely he’s just following a familiar conversational formula without paying attention to the weight of his words. Saying “sorry” in response to an unpleasant circumstance like this is more than polite, it’s an expectation. The second “sorry,” addressed to the people in the buffet line by the first-year, isn’t an apology, either. It’s clear to everyone that nothing about the situation is worthy of “a regretful acknowledgment of an offence or failure.” The student says sorry in order to be polite while getting someone to move out of his way. He could have said something else (“please move,” “excuse me,” “can I squeeze by you?”), but he didn’t. Why not?
Jenny’s “sorry” to nobody in particular is the kind I hear most often: the unexamined, unnecessary reflex when speaking or behaving. Why does she feel the need to be sorry for anything in the first place, and to whom? Does Jenny, as a woman, feel compelled to apologize on behalf of unapologetic Michael because she feels he’s done something clearly worthy of an apology? (In that case, whose definition of “worthy of an apology” is more correct, hers or his?) Or does she apologize out of empathy for the first-year whom Michael ignores?
I think Jenny uses “sorry” here to de-escalate any perceived rudeness or assertiveness on her part. Women do this much more often than men thanks to gendered social expectations of deference, among other things. This fundamentally sexist construct has two solutions: Expect men to say “sorry” for this reason as frequently as women, or encourage all genders to stop using the word in this way. Eradicating unnecessary sorrys seems like the more logical path to promoting respectful and self-actualizing interactions. (Many outlets agree.)
But this process is slow. If language history teaches us anything, it’s that this reflexive “sorry” (in the same way as “y’know” or “I mean”) will persist until the vast majority of speakers subconsciously delete it from their vocabulary. In the meantime, we can be conscious of using it without punishing ourselves for doing so. Sorry, but habits like this are tough to break.
The author is a junior concerned that his classmates’ overuse of “sorry” might be Columbia’s empathy problem in action. He thinks we should all beg each other’s pardon instead. Please direct all agreements, disagreements, and favorite times someone said “sorry” without apologizing to email@example.com. Can of Words runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.