I’ve always been a very apologetic person. My inclination to apologize is so immediate, I once said sorry to a coffee table after stubbing my toe on it. I wish I could tell you why I do this, but try as I might, I have yet to reach my “aha!” moment.
Sorry about that.
When I studied abroad in Denmark, the number of times I said, “I’m sorry” within the first week is laughable; I said it when I was passed in the bike lane, when I butchered the language, or any time I felt overtly American.
For efficiency’s sake, I asked my Danish teacher how to say, “I’m sorry” in Danish. He looked very concerned and asked “Why, what did you do?”
What hadn’t I done? I felt as if I had committed every egregious sin in the tourist handbook. I was tempted to buy white sneakers and a fanny pack so the Danes would avoid me altogether.
As my teacher explained, “Undskyld” (the Danish word for “sorry”) is rarely used in casual conversation; instead, “undskyld” is reserved for offering condolences or repairing a relationship that is seriously damaged. The Danes don’t feel the need to apologize for making honest mistakes. They have a very strong sense of community, and they trust that people will not deliberately cause trouble or cause harm to one another.
In learning this, I realized that saying “I’m sorry” as often as I did not only cheapened the words but turned them into a defense mechanism. I wasn’t really sorry for bumping into someone on the bus; I was sorry for not being Danish, for being an American disrupting the status quo, for things I had no control over.
“If I can give you some advice,” my teacher said, “just don’t say sorry.”
I’m sorry, but just don’t say sorry? Asking a bird not to fly would produce better results. But I knew if I was going to survive the semester, I had to make some compromises.
When I was checking out at the grocery store the next day, I put a divider with an advertisement for “lukket” behind my items and was met with confused grumbles as people left the line. That’s when I learned “lukket” means “closed.”
I wanted to say “I’m sorry.” I wanted to say it so badly that little beads of sorry sweat started collecting on my forehead trying desperately to make amends. But I swallowed my sorry, and I shrugged it off.
Looking back at how often I used to apologize, I now feel a sense of liberation. I would apologize after calling up my best friend to vent because I thought my feelings were somehow unjustified and I was wasting her time. Now, I thank her for listening. I say “Excuse me” if I bump into someone because this world is no more theirs than it is mine, and I deserve my place in it. If I have a question I no longer preface it with “I’m sorry” because what do I have to be sorry about?
Take the advice I was given and free yourself from your “sorry” shackles, regret restraints, and apology anguish. That was bad punning, I know. But I’m not sorry for it.
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