This morning, as I walked around Fresh Pond, a hoard of runners came upon me and cut me off as they turned left into the parking lot. “Sorry!” One of the women giggled.
On Tuesday, our habitually late yoga teacher arrived to class five minutes after noon. ”Sorry I’m late,” were her opening words.
Last week, a couple was walking their dog, off leash, along the bike path. I slowed to accommodate the wandering dog. “Sorry!” the wife mumbled.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘sorry’ as “feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence.” None of the micro-encounters described above included any sorrow or regret, and certainly no penitence. The runner didn’t want to break her stride crossing in front of me, even if it meant I had to break mine. The yoga teacher made no intention to begin future classes on time. The couple did not leash their meandering dog. Yet I believe that each of these women felt amelioration, maybe even forgiveness, by their words. After all, they apologized.
Once upon a time, the word ‘sorry’ meant, “I did something to inconvenience, perhaps even hurt you, and I will be more aware not to do it in the future.” These days it means, “I did something to inconvenience, perhaps even hurt you, but it’s okay because I am entitled, and if I toss a ‘sorry’ your way, my conscience is scrubbed clean.”
Men, of course, rarely say they are sorry. I used to think this was rude. Now, since almost everyone uses the word without a morsel of sincerity, perhaps men who inconvenience or hurt others are actually being more honest. They don’t fake apologize. They just do what they are going to do and if others get in the way, tough ‘nuggies.
I blame this sorry state of affairs on Parker Brothers, who popularized the British board game in the United States. No one is actually sorry when they send another player’s token back to start. Trilling the word, “Sorry!” only adds salt to the wound of setback, often made worse by the fact that, in a truly vicious game, a player can often select which opponent to abuse. It’s a game of conquest; so elementary to Western nature it hardly needs directions.
Which brings me to my own micro-crusade. I want to resuscitate the word ‘sorry’ to its original meaning, or at least give it enough heft to actually mean something.
Phase One: only say the word ‘sorry’ when I truly mean it and then change my behavior moving forward. This means I say the word less often, but actually think about how my actions affect others more.
Phase Two: When others throw a ‘sorry’ my way, stop and ask them what they mean. Do they actually regret what they did? Will they try to change their behavior moving forward? Capitalize on an unpleasant encounter to create a moment of connection.
Each of the three scenarios above—and there are so many more—concluded with me explaining to these women how they used the word incorrectly, imploring them to be more conscious of their actions, and only saying ‘sorry’ when they actually mean it. These conversations ran to ten even fifteen minutes—in my head. For of course I am too stymied in the moment to actually say anything out loud to these offenders.
Will I ever summon the courage to engage someone who tosses an insincere ‘sorry’ my way? That remains to be seen. In our uncivil word, entering into conversation with strangers is a dicey proposition, especially when the agenda is to inform and hopefully modify behavior. If I ever tried to do that: I might be sorry.