When I was teaching French this summer in Nantes, France, my students made one mistake above almost any other: when in French to say “I’m sorry.” Rather than expressing empathy (“I’m so sorry for your loss!”) or shame (“I entirely regret my actions!”), my students were constantly attempting to use the French phrase Je suis désolé to express something else.
Sometimes they wished to say politely, “You’re blocking the Monoprix grocery aisle with your cart; could you please move?” Other times, they had just interrupted a stranger to ask them the directions to the Place du Cirque. In both circumstances, Excusez-moi or Pardon would best expressed their desire to briefly assert themselves into the life of someone whom they did not know.
But instead, from my students’ lips escaped — as we do in American English — the same words that connote deep apologetic shame: sorry, sorry, sorry.
Especially the female students.
What are the implications of a language that allows its speakers to merge the usage of such an intimate, humbling phrase as “I’m sorry” with other, more public phrases? It’s a phrase that has become coded as respectful (“I’m sorry to interrupt”) but hides a quiet self-erasure, a removal of one’s importance. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m sorry because you are somehow the most important.
Another example is the word “just.” Rather than summarizing (“I just want you to be happy”), the word diminishes the meaning of everything that has previously been said.
On the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, I’ve begun refusing to say “I’m sorry” simply if I am taking up too much space (I opt for “Excuse me”). I also delete “I’m sorry” from all the emails that I write that are suggestions and not apologies. When summing up my day with Jon with the phrase “I’m just… frustrated,” I now try my best to remove the “just.” I’m frustrated. Period.
My body belongs on the sidewalk, my apology can be heard without groveling, and I have feelings. “I’m sorry” is a phrase that should be reserved only for moments of sincere empathy or deep shame.
Using words wisely is a simple way to respect those around me and believe in my own strength.