When I was young, my parents taught me my manners. I’m sure yours did, too. But I have noticed that those manners have evolved over the decades. The manners I teach my children are slightly different from what my parents taught me. Why? Aren’t manners considered timeless? Well yes, but not really. Politeness varies from culture to culture. In some cultures, slurping your soup is considered polite, while in others, it is considered rude.
My friend Murray wrote a fantastic article about the social implications of “You’re welcome.” I had previously been spoken to by my father-in-law about not saying “You’re welcome,” so I was already aware of its decline, but Murray explores why. Previously, I would say, “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” Please, do go read his article on the subject. I can wait until you get back.
“Please” and “Thank you” have been easy to teach my kids, but “I’m sorry” has been a bit trickier. In theory, one should say “I’m sorry” when they have harmed someone else in some way. Cutting in line, causing injury, or otherwise actively wronging someone requires a polite person to say, “I’m sorry.” But we also teach our girls and women that they need to apologize simply for being composed of matter (specifically, the qualification of taking up space). When a man bumps into a woman, why does the woman apologize? She did nothing wrong.
When the problem is merely a matter of circumstance and no one has done anything wrong, I think a much better phrase to use is, “Pardon me,” or its twin, “Excuse me.” A great example of this is when you are walking down an aisle in the grocery store and pass between another customer and the shelf they are pondering. No one has done anything wrong so an apology is not necessary, but it might be polite to say something.
Now we are getting into more delicate territory. As a child, I was taught to say, “I forgive you,” when someone apologized to me. But forgiveness today is too often tied up with “Forgive and forget,” which are actually two very different things. Quite frankly, I am often not ready to forgive immediately upon an apology. I still have to get into that frame of mind, and the apology can be the beginning of that process, but it is rarely the end. To forgive someone, as I use the term, is to no longer allow the transgression to evoke negative feelings. That is inner work that we have to do for ourselves.
Let me say that another way.
Forgiveness is for the forgiver, not the forgiven.
Another common response I have heard to, “I’m sorry,” is, “It’s fine,” or some variation thereof. To me, that just encourages lying. Usually it is not fine. The only time I think “It’s fine,” is an acceptable response to “I’m sorry,” is when the apology was truly unnecessary in the first place, such as a woman taking up space that a man bumped into. (I use this example because I see it so much in our sexist society. I have never witnessed an example with the genders reversed.) If my child smashes me in the head with a broom, it is certainly not fine. Saying so will confuse the child into thinking that next time he doesn’t need to apologize, since it was “fine” this time.
So what do you say when someone offers you an apology and you are still feeling rather steamed about it? I say, “Thank you.”
“I’m sorry I smashed you in the head with the broom.”
“Thank you [for that apology]. Now go put the broom away.”
Saying thank you acknowledges the act of the apology, without lying and saying that there was no need for one in the first place, or lying and saying that you no longer care about it. It allows us to be polite and still honor our own feelings.
What do you say when someone apologizes to you? How does it make you feel?