As Canadians we are notoriously known for being polite, with comedy sketches and internet pictures frequently mocking our excessive kindness and propensity towards apologies. We often read this as a favorable quality, this readiness to assume responsibility for a minor infraction or social inconvenience – but what does frequent apologizing really say about us?
To start, I am going to propose that there are three types of apologies.
The first is an apology of culpability.
When we do something wrong—
- leave the gate open and the dog runs out,
- show up late for an important event, or
- forget to do something we committed to do
—these things warrant some sort of admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
With an apology of culpability we are taking ownership of an action (or lack of action) that we are responsible for that creates pain, difficulty, or disruption in the life or relationship we have with another. In these cases a sorry of culpability makes sense.
In owning up to a short coming or failure on our part we are aiming to right the potential disconnect that could have happened as a result of our actions, and are attempting to communicate to the other that we get that they’re upset because of something we are responsible for.
I’m a big fan of this kind of sorry.
Probably because I find myself leaning into these spaces often, mostly with those I love dearly, and mostly apoligizing for either being selfish, being snarky, or making a big deal out of a small thing and making somebody feel like an idiot.
The second kind of apology out there is an apology of compassion.
Such an apology may follow hearing the news of a friend’s loved one passing, a cancer diagnosis, or when another usually unfortuate or inconvenient situation has occurred.
A sorry of compassion is used to communicate empathy. In this type of interaction the person offering the apology is not accepting responsibility for what happened, but rather is using the word to communicate an understanding of how unfortunate things are and as a way of standing with another in a time of discomfort.
I use apologies of compassion often with my kids, particularly with one who has a tendency to recount all of the days’ injustices and her devastation around them. There are many “sorry’s” imparted here:
I’m sorry you didn’t feel heard by your friend…
I’m sorry you had to miss out on second play time…
I’m sorry that you are disappointed that we can’t go do that right now.
I am not in any saying that I am responsible for her feelings, but I stand with her and her hurt—noticing and naming and offering compassion to hurt spaces.
I’d like to think that these two camps would be sufficient to cover the whole “I’m sorry” field, and I think ideally they are, but there is a third category that exists.
I wonder if this is the category that us Canucks fall into when it comes to the stereotypes and memes about our overt kindness.
The third type of apology is an apology of existence.
Sometimes, we apologize for taking up our space in the world as though we don’t deserve to hold it. Sometimes when someone asks for a bit of room so they can squeeze by us, we prostrate ourselves before them requesting forgiveness for inconveniencing them by virtue of existing and simply sharing air.
Because the way we do things, or think, or where we sit/stand/move may create discomfort for someone else in some way it seems that a lot of us feel like we need to apologize for that.
When we take ownership of or responsibility for the discomfort of another, we are, in effect, apologizing for our own existence and the ways in which how we do things differs from their way of being.
Sometimes questions that require no culpability or compassion receive an apology:
- A request to get into the cutlery drawer receives a sorry I’m in your way response.
- An unfavorable comment about a tv show that’s being watched is answered with a sorry, I’ll change the channel.
- A meal that was thoughtfully prepared, but not particularly enjoyed by a spouse, receives a sorry, I won’t make that again answer.
I’m sure we can think of a million different examples where we hear another person (or ourselves) for apologizing for taking up space in the world, and the way that our presence or preferences may inconvenience another.
If you are someone who finds yourself in the third category often…or even a little…there’s something I want to let you in on:
You deserve to take up every inch of space you hold.
Your likes, dislikes, the way you go about doing things, how you set the table or fold the towels or cut the apple, these are not things that you need to apologize for.
Take up your space.
If someone doesn’t like the way you do things, try offering #2 – the apology of compassion, with an, I’m sorry you didn’t like it that way. That would be frustrating.
But please know that you are not wrong because someone else has a problem with the way you move. Unless of course, the first category applies and you’ve slipped up and have done something in error. In which case, own the mistake – but be clear that you are not the mistake.
So next time those two little words slide out of your lips, perhaps give a second to figure out what you are apologizing for—and if an apology is even needed. Maybe the perception of Canadians as quick to apologize isn’t as favorable as we might like to believe it is, not at least if we are apologizing for being who we are. I propose that it’s time to change the perception of Canadians as over-apologizing pushovers.
Instead, let us become humble mistake makers who are exceptionally compassionate with others, to be people who practice living authentically and with great kindness without being afraid to hold our own space in the world.