Crossing my social media radar this afternoon, is a cartoon with social interaction advice, “If you want to say thank you, don’t say sorry”
It is strong self-support advice, in that it presents a series of situations in which “sorry” is framing oneself as a problem, whereas saying “thank you” acknowledges the other person.
For instance, “Sorry I’m late” versus “thank you for your patience” (or just, “thanks for waiting”, would be my most common expression of the sentiment).
As I read through the cartoon, though, I found myself questioning the premise of some of the comparisons. I found myself thinking about which of them I say, and in what situations. What makes a difference in whether I say “thank you” or “sorry”?
If you want to say, “Thank you for understanding me,” don’t say, “Sorry, I’m not making a lot of sense.”
It seems to me that there is a huge difference between situations when one might say the first versus those where one might use the second. It’s not hard to see where the difference lies. One can only say, “Thank you for understanding me,” if one actually feels understood. If one feels that the other person doesn’t understand, and is perplexed or confused by one’s words, then one feels like an imposition, and as though an apology is necessary.
Of course, that feeling of being not understood can be generated by oneself, as well as or instead of by the other person. Depression, or a self-image as “not intelligent” or “not clever with words” can result in unfairly and negatively self-prejudging one’s attempts to express oneself. Then, regardless of how well the other person has understood, one can feel as though one’s message has been lost. I’ve been there!
Similarly, especially when depression or gloom is predominant (there being a huge difference between depression and just having a lot of sad feelings going on) it is possible to feel that one is “kind of a drag”, or that one is “just rambling”, and that the other person isn’t listening.
But a lot of the time, the difference comes from the other person.
If you want to say, “Thank you for appreciating me,” don’t say, “Sorry I take up so much space.”
(Of course, it could be space, time, effort, or whatever)
Again, there’s a world of difference between the two. One cannot thank another for appreciating them, if one feels that the other doesn’t. The impression of how one is perceived by the other frames the situation and changes it, so that one phrase is appropriate and the other, not. It is very hard – even incongruous (and incongruent) – to say “thank you for appreciating me” if one is not appreciated, but instead receives signals that say, “You are taking up my VALUABLE time” (subtext, too valuable to be wasted on the likes of YOU!”) If the other person doesn’t seem to be listening, or particularly, to have stopped listening, then one can no longer say, “Thank you for listening” but might feel obliged to apologise, “Sorry, I’m just rambling.”
(A caveat: In terms of “Thank you for your patience” it could be assumed that the same is true in the difference between being welcomed with open arms, or with a tap on the wristwatch (or imaginary wristwatch) or pointed glance at the phone. In the latter case, there is surely a pressure to saying sorry rather than thank you. However, I feel that in that instance at least, there is strength in framing the situation. The person indicating their impatience is justified when one apologises; but thanking them regardless of their actual impatience asserts equality and civility.)
It is easy to say, “Avoid those people who make you feel you need to apologise”, but that is not always possible for everyone. Sometimes we have to live or work with people who do not seem to want thanks in this way.
But there is a lesson to be learned: if we find it hard to thank some people, because they are demanding apologies, then perhaps we should work harder to be the sort of person whom others find it easy to thank. I struggle with some things, like eye contact and looking like I’m listening, but I have found that by using other active listening skills (reflecting, paraphrasing, encouraging noises, and so on) that I have become the sort of person who is more often thanked for listening, and not apologised to for “rambling”. By overcoming my impatience, I have I hope become more likely to be thanked for waiting than apologised to for lateness. And so on.
To be thanked, I think, feels much more positive than to be apologised to. And it helps everyone if we can make it easy for others to thank us.