I’ve been having vivid dreams, and last night was no exception. In my dream, I was in trouble. I came out of the bathroom, and there was a security guard waiting for me. He actually took me by the ear and starting leading me to wherever I was supposed to go. I
said to him, “Really, that is simply not necessary.” He released my ear and deposited me in a spot where I was to wait for whatever talking to I was in for. Then I woke up.
Um, I’m sorry?
I’ve been thinking a lot about apologies lately, because for the last month or so I’ve been flittering around New Zealand and living communally with strangers in hostels. Often, there is an unchoreographed dance that take place in the large kitchens during meal times. In bathrooms, there’s plenty of being in the way, and the dorm-style bunks involve piles of luggage and sometimes-smelly hiking shoes lining the doorways. There is plenty of apologizing, constantly.
This is making me think about the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me.” I am meeting people from all over the globe, and there are cultural difference as well. “Lo siento” means, literally, “I feel that,” while “Me disculpa” means, basically, “It is the fault of me.” In French, “Je m’excuse” is different than “Je suis désolé.” Subtle stuff, but I’m a writer so words are important.
Often, I find that when living in close proximity with others, one is quick to simply apologize for existing. As in: “I am totally standing in your way, and I’m sorry I am existing in your path. But I need to stir my noodles as well.” Then there’s the apology that comes from bumping into someone. Then there’s the apology for being bumped into. That’s what got me thinking.
What is the boundary between apologizing for existing and honoring yourself for existing? I tend not to apologize for being bumped into, but I hear people do it constantly. Instead, I would smile and say, “Oh, no worries.” And yet – it is simply another cultural difference. I had a conversation with a Kiwi friend and a French friend, and they both agreed that the person who was the “victim” in the situation ought to own up to their role in the conflict and apologize as well. My French friend even went as far as to say that if a boyfriend were to cheat on her, she would apologize to him for whatever she might have done to cause that poor behavior.
This is very different from the American way, and better, I think. I used to think that there was a global epidemic with people who were unable to apologize for things they really ought to. This opinion came straight from my own experience: Ex-boyfriends, who by all accounts were wrong, but would dig in their heels and demand, “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” instead of simply being sorry for even upsetting me. And yet, to what degree was I at fault? What a burn to the ego to apologize for being hurt: It’s pretty awesome.
On the other hand, I have been bumped and nearly sat on by Asian tourists here who fail
to even acknowledge my existence. At first, I thought they were being rude, and then I quickly recognized that personal space simply does not exist where billions of people live basically on top of one another. Why apologize for invading something that doesn’t even exist? I’m grateful to have this lesson months before I head to Asia for the first time. I really am the one who should apologize at the silly notion to think they were rude in the first place. How ethnocentric of me!
Recognizing personal upset as a deserved, justifiable lesson that requires an apology is a big evolutionary process. It seems too easy for some people to cross their arms over their chest, jut back their shoulders and stick out their chins and “stand their ground.” As in: “This is MY place in the kitchen! This is MY pot of noodles! How DARE you try to get a cutting board while I am stirring my noodles!” It’s ridiculous. If saying “I’m sorry” feels like a blow to your being, a simple “excuse me” honors your existence while also acknowledging that your bodily demands conflict with another’s.
My favorite apology is “lo siento.” It’s energetic in nature. I feel that conflict, and I want to verbalize it. I feel you. I feel you, bro. (Insert fist bump here) Another Spanish apology is “con permiso,” which means, “With your permission, I would like to pass.” And then there’s the simple “Pèrdon.” Why are there so many options in some cultures and so few in others?
Even with my own self-work and my interest in helping others, I’ve still certainly done
enough in my life that warrants apology. The old “hurt people hurt people” saying holds true; when I’ve lashed out at someone, it’s because I was hurt as well. Yet, doubling the hurt will not make the initial hurt go away; quite the opposite. The apology and the deflation of the ego is what will make that hurt go away. The only thing that really hurts is the ego. When that’s removed, you’re just learning a lesson.
And yet, in my dream last night, I really didn’t feel like I did anything wrong. I didn’t have any guilt, and I had no reason why I was being dragged by the ear by a security guard. I didn’t know who I was waiting for, or what to expect. I woke up curious. Maybe I was wrong. If I was – or even if I wasn’t – I’m sorry.