By the time I had to tutor on the day after my oral surgery, I had not recovered quite as much as I’d hoped. I didn’t just look like a chipmunk – I looked like a whole colony of chipmunks had crawled inside my cheek and died there. When the student walked into the Academic Resource Center, I pried open my jaws and said, “I’m sorry, but I just had oral surgery.”
Wait. A line of throbbing stitches ran along my right gum, and a blob of drool hesitated behind my lower lip – but I had done nothing wrong. So why was I apologizing?
The word “apology” describes a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure, but most of our daily apologies don’t address any faults at all. Emails to professors often contain the words “sorry to bother you.” When asking to borrow a pencil, a person may apologize for “being annoying,” or when raising a hand in class, begin with the words, “sorry if this sounds stupid, but …”
These apologies are meant to curry favor, spoken for the same reason a puppy will roll over to expose his vulnerable underbelly in front of a larger dog. But such submissiveness won’t win you any respect; instead, you’ll just look weak. And in social interactions, confidence counts.
Apologies may seem like the oil that lets a conversation flow, and to some extent, they are. Having a conscience, and being willing to own up to mistakes certainly help maintain functional social relationships. But in excess, and dripped in the wrong place, this oil will gum up, clump together and end up doing more harm than good.
It’s not out of line to ask a professor for help. Lending out a pencil is usually not a huge inconvenience. And by beginning your sentence with, “I’m sorry if this is dumb,” you’ve already predisposed listeners to disregard your opinion.
Next time the words “I’m sorry” are about to fly out of your mouth, try to catch yourself. Look a person in the eyes and tell them what you think. Go ahead and ask for that pencil. Mumble to your tutee, “Yes, I had oral surgery, but I’m still here to help.” And remember that being polite and being sorry are not the same thing.
Alexa Langen is a sophomore majoring in creative writing.