‘I’m sorry’

Why apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong?

| Staff Columnist

Not a day has gone by in recent memory in which I have not heard the words “I’m sorry” from a total stranger. Sometimes these apologies are legitimate. Sometimes I am jostled or severely inconvenienced or any number of things for which social decorum would demand an apology.

More often, though, these strangers are just apologizing for existing. Today I was walking out of Bear’s Den behind a girl I did not know. Outside the doors, she saw someone she knew and moved out of my way to talk to him. As I passed her, she apologized to me. I kept walking, but said out loud, “For what?” If she had heard me and realized that the question was directed at her, I’m not sure what she would have said.

What could she have said? She didn’t touch me. She didn’t make my walk any harder. She didn’t slow me down. Her presence had literally no effect on me that her nonpresence would have had. What was she apologizing for? Breathing my air?

This is not unusual. At Subway the other day, I got a toasted sub and the person behind me, a total stranger, did not. Naturally, her sandwich was put ahead of mine in line. Did she go in front of me and follow her sandwich’s trajectory in order to minimize the amount of time everyone had to spend there? No. She stayed behind me and waited for my sandwich to be done toasting and for me to get my vegetables and sauce before she did. And the kicker? She apologized for having her sandwich go in front of mine.

I can only speculate about the twisted logic behind this. Obviously some grave mistake had been made when the employees tried to maximize their efficiency. And this mistake was obviously the fault of the girl behind me. If you follow that logic, you may be crazy. And if you agree with it, you’re part of the problem.

Why is any of this necessary? Why do people feel the need to justify their negligible impact on strangers’ lives? Why would you apologize when you haven’t done anything wrong? How can you possibly be sincere when you have nothing to apologize for? And what’s the point of apologizing if you so clearly don’t mean it? Over-apologizers obliterate the value of actual apologies.

What happened to people? When did we become so hyper-concerned with politeness that every imagined slight is worthy of fake sincerity? Where did our collective backbone go? It’s okay to do things that someone else might not like. And it’s okay that they don’t like it. Everyone is different, and those differences are what make people people. Those differences are to be expected. They don’t need to be excused.

It should be clear to all parties involved what an apology is for. Anything else is a waste of breath. We try to make everything else in our lives count as much as possible; why should apologies be different?