By Angela Hill
Oakland Tribune Staff Writer
Susan Kuchinskas has a sorry habit.
The Berkeley artist, sculptor and writer tends to take the blame when someone else rams her with a grocery cart in the store: "Oops! Sorry!" she'll say. She'll apologize when asking a stranger for the time of day: "I'm sorry to bother you." Or when someone else has an injury: "Oh, I'm so sorry." The last is meant merely as sympathy that the other person has a problem, but it's often taken as unnecessarily contrite.
Even during this interview, she dropped her phone, quickly recovering with a reflexive: "Sorry about that!"
"I hate myself when I apologize so much," Kuchinskas said. "It happens in the grocery store all the time. People walk around like zombies and bump into you, and I'll say I'm sorry. I mean, maybe I was in the way, so it was partly my fault anyway. And I'm just sorry that it happened."
She said she's not using "I'm sorry" to avoid conflict. It's more about being polite. "And in this uncivilized, angry society, I'd rather err on the side of politeness."
Kuchinskas is one of many among us who overapologize -- begging pardon for everything from asking directions or receiving the wrong change at the store to speaking up in a work meeting or writing this story. Sociologists say it's mostly women who are guilty of this, but men do it, too. Regardless of the root of such behavior -- whether family upbringing, cultural influences or even abusive relationships -- it can easily become an obsequious habit that drives others nuts.
Of course, you then have to apologize for overapologizing, and then apologize for that and ...
Even comedian Bill Maher slammed "apology mania" in an op-ed to The New York Times, mocking celebrities, athletes and politicians who too often offer forced, insincere mea culpas.
"When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don't like?" he wrote, calling for an amnesty "on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, play-acted hurt, insult, slight and affront."
Yet public-figure apologies continue. Gen. David Petraeus recently expressed public -- and apparently sincere -- regret for the extramarital affair that ended his military career. Apple CEO Tim Cook made headlines when, under pressure from the Chinese media, he apologized for the way his company had dealt with warranty complaints. And actress Anne Hathaway famously -- and annoyingly -- apologized for wearing Prada instead of Valentino to this year's Oscars.
In the grand scheme of world problems, fawning over each other with sorrow for real or perceived slights doesn't seem so bad, and it could possibly ease tensions. And it's absolutely right to apologize -- in the right way, sincerely owning up to your actions and offering to make amends -- when you've really done something wrong.
Yet those in the fields of psychotherapy and communication skills say issuing a steady stream of "I'm sorry" is mere social lubrication, just to smooth things over and go on with your day. When it becomes a habit, it can undermine one's self-esteem and credibility in the eyes of others.
"By taking responsibility when something's not your fault, you crush your self-esteem," said professional empowerment coach Cindy Holbrook of CoachingForDivorcedWomen.com, who herself had to overcome the "sorry" habit after 20 years of an abusive marriage.
"When I started dating my (second) husband, it used to drive him crazy," she said. "We'd be driving somewhere, and he'd hit a red light, and I'd say I'm sorry. He'd say, 'What the heck are you apologizing for?' That really made me realize how often I said it for no real reason."
It can be a hard habit to break, she said. "You need to pay attention to how often you do it, and recognize if you're really sorry and why you're saying it. If it's out of misplaced feelings of guilt, replace those thoughts with positive affirmations to yourself, such as that you're worthy, confident. You don't have to take responsibility for things you didn't do."
Grant Kien, professor of communications at Cal State East Bay, admits he has even bumped into a dog and apologized.
"Some of us do it as a way to avoid any conflict in our lives," he said. "And there can be a big cultural dimension as well. For instance, I'm from Toronto, where everyone, male and female, says 'Sorry' all the time. It's annoying. What they actually mean is 'Excuse me.' But it becomes a cultural norm."
From the communications perspective, Kien says research on gender patterns confirms that women develop this habit more so than men. And it's likely on purpose.
"There's the notion of 'intentional communication,' " he said, which says we communicate with an intended effect. It's not accidental. In addition, there's a whole school of sociology called "symbolic interaction," which involves the choice to "perform one's identity," Kien said. "That includes gender performance. So when you pull these theories together, the intent when a woman (overapologizes) is to be seen as a woman."
In other words, many women take responsibility for things that are not even their fault because that behavior is perceived in society as a female trait.
Not all bad
Overdoing "sorry" can certainly affect self-esteem -- or it can become your job.
For New York writer and "professional apologizer" Dave Bry, his guilt over past mistakes turned into a regular column called "Public Apology" for The Awl website in 2009; it's now becoming a book of the same name, examining cringeworthy moments in his life. They're mostly humorous, but some are serious -- from tossing beer cans on Jon Bon Jovi's lawn or leaving a couch in an apartment-building hallway to missed opportunities with his dad.
"I am pro-apology," he said. "I like when people apologize for things they realize they've done wrong. I think it makes the world a better place."
But, Bry said, overapologizing can become its own problem by making the people you're talking to uncomfortable.
"Overapologizing can really be its own sort of rudeness, especially if its done again and again without correcting the behavior it addresses.
"I mean, we've all had that feeling of like, 'Stop apologizing. Just don't do (the thing) anymore!' "