“Sorry Syndrome”: Do You Apologize for the Rain?

When someone steps on my foot, I am the first to say, “I’m sorry.” I apologize for the weather, for terrible traffic, the long line at CVS and dozen of other undesirable situations that I am not responsible for.

I am not the only one who is inflicted with “Sorry Syndrome.” Many of my patients, especially women, tell me they insert “Sorry” into any sentence that contains a request.

“Sorry, may I have a glass of water?”

“Sorry, can I ask a question?”

“Sorry, where is the bathroom?”

Knowing how to apologize for something you regret is one thing. Apologizing for basically existing is another. As columnist Jessica Bennett writes:

Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear “soft” while making a demand.

So why do we insist on making on apologizing for no reason? A Harvard Business School study provides a possible explanation. According to the research, superfluous apologies build trust. In the study, an actor approached strangers in a train station on a rainy day and requested to borrow their phone. Half of the time, the actor prefaced his request with “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time, the actor went straight to the point and asked, “Can I borrow your cell phone?” Apologizing for the rain made a big difference: forty-seven percent of strangers offered their phone if the actor apologized for the rain. Only nine percent did without the apology. As the authors conclude:

Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’ – even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.

Building trust is important but does not justify apologizing for every little thing. If you want to reduce the number of superfluous apologies that roll off your tongue, consider replacing “sorry” with “thank you.”

For example, instead of saying, “Sorry for rambling” you can say, “Thank you for listening.” Instead of saying “Sorry” when you move past someone on a train, you can say “Thank you for making room.”

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights the benefits of replacing an apology with gratitude:

Sorry you had to do that” is not only a rejection of their nice gesture, a lot of times, it makes it weird. “Thank you for doing that” is recognizing and accepting their kindness.

On that note, thank you for reading this article.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman