Sorry, but I just have a quick question.
May 15, 2019 1:54 PM   Subscribe

How do you engage with someone who says sorry ALL THE TIME??

I've a newish friend who apologises constantly, and I mean constantly, for things he doesn't need to - and I don't know if this is a me-thing or true of more people, but I find it strangely... demanding in a weird way? Like, you're forced to derail the conversation from whatever it was originally about so that you can take up to 5 minutes reassuring him that he hasn't done anything wrong while he tells you why he feels so bad about whatever thing he is currently apologising about (and it's never anything that bad).

I find him a fun, kind and interesting person and I want to continue engaging with him but I find him absolutely exhausting! How can I continue to engage with him in a kind way when the constant apologies drive me bananas? Are we just not meant to be friends? I've jokingly pointed out the excessive apologising to him before, but it never seems to take; he doesn't change his behaviour.

The irony is, when he engages with others he is the fun and interesting person I befriended, but with me it's just nonstop apologising. It's so weird, because while I am a fairly confident person, I am extremely non-confrontational and non-intimidating.
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you often find yourself exhausted and driven bananas by people who are also fun, kind, and interesting? Doesn't sound like he's that much fun, or particularly interesting.
posted by Sublimity at 1:59 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I used to apologize too much. A friend got sick of it. She said "Nan, you have to stop apologizing all the time." I jokingly said "sorry." She said "I mean it." Then every time I said "Sorry" she said "Stop it!" and I did. It broke my habit and I was grateful. This was a very close friend who was known for being blunt. Maybe there's a slightly softer way, but I am glad someone pointed out what was basically an unconscious verbal habit. ( Perhaps ask yourself first if your friend seems confident enough to be told this directly, as well as confident enough of your general liking of him, before you do it?.)
posted by nantucket at 2:01 PM on May 15 [10 favorites]

Maybe he has a crush on you, or is just worried about making sure to not offend you as a new friend? He might be really worried about what you think.
posted by yueliang at 2:02 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]

I was going to chalk this up to a cultural misunderstanding but it sounds like this friend is apologizing for specific things and not just injecting "oh, sorry" at random moments for things you don't perceive as slights? It could be a lack of self-confidence or he's not quite as comfortable with you as with existing friends.

I'd just ignore it. He says sorry, just continue on. If it's really a validation thing then he's going to try to start a conversation, but you could be stuck in a feedback loop where he apologizes and you actually respond so he feels like he needs to apologize. Sometimes a "sorry" is less of an an apology and more of a default interjection (ok, insert the Canadian joke here)
posted by mikeh at 2:02 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Not to threadsit, but yes, it's not a verbal tic - he apologises for specific things. Like, we'll have a conversation, and then he'll go away and email me about it sometime later, saying he hopes I didn't mind that he said X or Y, or hopes that I didn't think X or Y, etc - when the chances of my taking offence to such things was vanishingly small.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:05 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]

what about something like "when you constantly apologize, it makes me feel like you're scared of me, like you're accusing me of being an angry and irrational or hypersensitive person who's always on the verge of attacking you. I'm not any of those things. Can you please knock it off, because it feels like an accusation."
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:12 PM on May 15 [13 favorites]

Does he derail the conversation, or do you? As both a mostly-recovered habitual apologizer who has a lot of friends who also do this, I handle it with a cheery, “It’s fine!” and continue the conversation. It doesn’t have to be drawn out. Just a sincere “no worries” of some kind is enough. Sometimes they’ll follow it up with “are you sure?” and I just say “Yup!” and continue what we were talking about or change the subject. It doesn’t necessarily break the habit, but it makes it take up a lot less time and makes it less annoying.

People who do this are usually very anxious, and just telling them to change doesn’t help. They either need a therapist, or someone like the person in nantucket’s life who can consistently help them work to break the habit. You can be that person if you want, but it’s fine not to. I did that for my partner, but for my other friends I just use “it’s fine” and move on.
posted by brook horse at 2:18 PM on May 15 [24 favorites]

If it isn't fixed by simply saying, "Stop apologizing," then accept the person or move on.
posted by jwhite1979 at 2:19 PM on May 15 [7 favorites]

He sounds really anxious, from your follow-up. I also wonder if he has a crush on you, because he seems to really want to impress you. Not that that's your problem if true.

You've picked up on this, but the excessive apologizing is an indirect plea for reassurance, so you get to perform emotional labor because he keeps doing something that you've told him annoys you. I really like fingersandtoes' advice because it frames the apologizing as his problem to fix.
posted by Nyrha at 2:20 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

Tell him it makes you uncomfortable to be so frequently put into a position where you have to judge behavior, or forgive or not forgive when you don't really want to have to decide.

Tell him you'd rather just hang out with him even if little things go wrong, that enjoying his company is more important than pure correctness.
posted by Dashy at 2:21 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

This is basically what social anxiety looks like. It may subside over time with respect to you if you're consistently not getting upset about things.
posted by salvia at 2:34 PM on May 15 [17 favorites]

I can only speak for myself here, but I'm a chronic apologiser myself. And it's never really about the thing I'm apologising for. I recognise this behaviour in others as well. I try to be aware of it and not do it so much, but it's a difficult thing to move away from, because it's not as simple as "oh, I stepped on your foot, sorry". It's more a general feeling of... I'm not a very good person, I shouldn't really be here, I don't deserve you, I don't deserve to take up space. I'm a human being with needs, so I'll naturally try to seek out human interaction, but fundamentally I just don't feel like I deserve it. Sorry for hurting you, in all the ways I'm unaware of but I'm sure I must have done at some point. Sorry for being such a burden. Sorry for existing here. Sorry for everything that I am. (And also, sorry for stepping on your foot.)

I don't know your friend so I don't know if he has the same issue, but I think it usually comes down to low self-esteem. I know that it's unhelpful and sometimes annoying, but in the long term it also doesn't usually help to be reassured about whatever that specific issue is. If I were in a particularly apologetic rut, I think the best I could hope for would be that you would continue to be your kind, appreciative self, and gently brush off my fits of self-loathing without engaging with them too much.

There are clearly some things you like about this person, but the flaws unfortunately come with it. It seems like he maybe just hides his insecurities from people he doesn't know very well. Ultimately if you want to keep engaging with him I guess it comes down to somehow finding a way to live with both.
posted by AllShoesNoSocks at 2:36 PM on May 15 [34 favorites]

I would agree with everyone who says this can be what anxiety and/or low self-esteem look like, and would also add that this is a way some people can learn to be after having been in abusive situations. So, y'know, be kind.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:47 PM on May 15 [9 favorites]

I spend all day long with people being angry at me at work, so I apologize constantly because everyone around me is easily angered and has ruffled feathers. That's where it comes from, at least. I don't turn off the "living in fear" thing when I get off the clock any more and then stop apologizing because I'm presumably in a "safer" environment.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:02 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

My understanding is that this is often a behavioral trait for people who have been/are in abusive relationships, the general idea being that it's an attempt to placate their abuser. No idea if that is the case here or not, or if it's necessarily even a good rule of thumb (though in my limited experience it's been a pretty good heuristic), so take that for what it's worth.
posted by Aleyn at 3:13 PM on May 15

My approach is to frame it a little differently. I would tell him that I value our friendship enough that if he does something to upset me, I'll let him know we can talk it out. If I don't say something, please trust that I'm OK. Then when he apologies, say something reassuring like "It's fine" or "Not a problem" When he continues to apologize, I would say "Please trust me when I say it's fine. Let's talk about something else" It doesn't stop the apology completely but it keeps it to a minimum.

But this means you have to be a person who will speak up nicely if something bothers you and not build up resentment instead of speaking up.
posted by metahawk at 3:16 PM on May 15 [5 favorites]

Is he Canadian? Its a joke obviously, but one based on reality -- it is a thing. This is me, and I was worried I was the subject of this post! And yeah, people do get annoyed. It's almost a nervous or unconscious tick and I don't even know I'm doing it most of the time. It is definitely just a I thing i say with no other meaning than an acknowledgement that there might be a slight chance that you are going to inconvenienced by what I'm about to say, or were possibly inconvenienced. I would recommend you just don't acknowledge it, or just nominally, and just move on. "No worries, [continue on with conversation]" "All good" works as a transition here too.
posted by cgg at 3:20 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

I agree that this sounds like social anxiety more than anything, but one thing I might add is: Is he actually derailing the conversation to apologize in depth, or is it more like the title of your post (i.e., "sorry, but..."), and you're coming back to tell him he doesn't have to apologize? If the latter, that's kind of a habit of people in the midwestern US - especially, I've been told, the Cincinnati area. It's basically like an "um" or an "erm", and you can ignore it. Using your post title as an example, it should go something like this:

Him: "Sorry, but I just have a quick question."
You: "Ask away."

You're not even acknowledging that he's saying "sorry", because he's not consciously acknowledging it himself.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:24 PM on May 15

Is he actually derailing the conversation to apologize in depth, or is it more like the title of your post (i.e., "sorry, but...")

Sorry (ha!) but just to clarify: the title of my post was meant to be a joke. I realise it may have been misleading, in retrospect! The behaviour I describe is not a conversational tic, but a conversational derail which takes some time to talk through. ("I'm so sorry I did/said [completely harmless thing], I'm always doing things like that, it was really stupid of me, I should have known better, I feel awful about it, are you sure you don't mind, oh no you're just saying that, I know that you do secretly mind, etc etc.")

Really interesting answers about social anxiety and about people who've been in abusive relationships. Thanks, guys.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:31 PM on May 15

You've gotten a lot of feedback, but the energy behind how you describe him makes him sound so familiar that I wonder if similar mechanisms are at play as something I remember from my past.

I had a college roommate/sort-of-friend who was like this (and if the first name of your friend starts with a 'T' and his last name starts with an 'M', please reach out to me, as I've occasionally wondered what happened to him and would like to get back in touch). For him, it was literally a compulsion; he once woke me up to apologize if some sound he had made earlier had woken me up.

This was decades ago, mind you. But I would try Googling "compulsion to apologize," and looking at what people advise about dealing with OCD and apologizing. Here's a few links to start: OCD and apologizing. OCD: Compulsive Apologizing. OCD Reassurance Seeking.
posted by WCityMike at 3:38 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Following up immediately – I see that you indicated it wasn't a verbal tic, but I still wouldn't dismiss the possibility that's it's OCD. The way you described him in the second paragraph was extremely similar – hell, identical – to how my college roommate would behave back then, and with him, it definitely was an issue.
posted by WCityMike at 3:39 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Interrupt, if necessary to say "oh, don't worry about it. But about Conversational Topic?" And try to hang out with him in group settings since he doesn't seem to do it to other people.

Just don't give the apologies attention, positive or negative. You don't have to reassure him. You don't have to talk through it. If he keeps pushing to apologize, you can go for something like "I'm hanging out with you because I enjoy your company! I promise to tell you if you need to apologize to me for something."
posted by momus_window at 3:56 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

“I’ve noticed you apologize frequently. I’m just wondering—is there a backstory to that?”

Whatever is going on with him, you will have a better shot at understanding him if you make this about him, rather than you.
posted by suncages at 6:33 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]

Along the lines of abusive relationships, I have a tendency to do this and my analysis so far is that it's in part because someone I grew up with is non-confrontational to the point that they never ask for anything they want; instead, they apply various manipulative and pressuring techniques until the other person figures out what they want and does it.

As a parallel, they never ask me not to do something. Behaviors on my part which produce a reaction of anger and hostility sometimes fall along rational lines, but often do not: if this person is having a bad day they'll take it out on me by acting as though I've done something offensive. Hence I'm always walking on eggshells and assuming that just anything I do might be the cause of negativity - because even if this person's jerkish behavior had nothing to do with me at all on any give occasion, they'd never say so.

I don't have any particular solution for you but if your friend is intensively apologetic because of similar conditioning then being more non-confrontational, perhaps along with other subtle behavioral cues your friend isn't even aware tend to trigger the response, may "aggravate" the apologeticness, as it were.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 6:38 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I've seen this a lot in women, and yes it's generally the result of social conditioning and abuse.
My only experience with this in a man though very soon turned on me as a form of abuse; him expressing an equivalent amount of distress and anger in my direction at my not noticing and apologizing constantly for similar strange little things i had said that he took disproportionally great personal offense to. The term "walking on eggshells," comes to mind.
So that might be something to watch out for.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:37 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

Speaking as someone with severe anxiety, yes, this sounds exactly like untreated anxiety, rumination, and reassurance seeking.

While ultimately this is their issue to deal with, it might be helpful to send an email along the lines of:

- I greatly value your friendship and will never let an issue/offense sit between us

- Apologizing in this way is becoming an issue because it derails our awesome conversation and makes me feel x, y, z

- I know you often worry about offending me due to a/b/c, but I’ve never been upset about any of the things you’ve said/done and later apologized for.

- It may feel like I’m secretly offended, but that’s your brain playing tricks on you, etc.

- We need to break this habit because it feels bad for both of us.

- Come back to this email when you worry you’ve said or done something wrong and need a reminder of the above.

- Love you lots, hope this helps, I’m open to having a deeper conversation about this, etc, as appropriate

Essentially, a more wordy version of what momus_window said.

And then see what happens. Ideally they would be able to return to the email when they need reassurance and be able to read through it and self-soothe.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 2:41 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]

How can I continue to engage with him in a kind way? Respond with a canned response each time: "All Good!"

Even when he sends you a 3 page email, just reply "All Good."
posted by at at 4:50 AM on May 16

I wonder if overly flowery responses of forgiveness would help: "My dearest [anxious friend], pass from your mind any concern over having caused offense."
posted by aspersioncast at 5:00 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]

It's weird that he seems to apologize constantly to you and not to his other friends (unless he's apologizing to them by email).

There's a behavior-modification technique that involves ignoring or blanking unwanted behaviors and reinforcing wanted ones. If he emails or texts you a long apology, ignore it. Don't respond at all. Do respond to normal messages that don't contain apologies. If he starts one of his gushy derail apologies in person, just say "Hang on, I have to go to the bathroom" and go. You'll be hitting the interrupt button on that behavior.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:06 AM on May 16

i do this all the time. for exactly the reason allshoes says. mostly only with my boyfriend or close people. i saw a post on reddit a couple years ago that said "say thank you instead of sorry." so, "thank you for waiting" instead of "sorry i'm always late" and things like that. i try to be mindful of it, because my constant apologies drive my boyfriend crazy. so, perhaps send your friend one of these articles? i'm guessing your friend things they're a piece of shit and apologize so you won't hate them for being a piece of shit. so, don't treat them like a piece of shit. try to value them and like them flaws and all, and maybe try to help them with this one since it does bother you.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:16 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]

I agree that it's likely driven by anxiety. Lots of us come home and get wound up about some detail of a conversation. So, be gentle. Tell friend that you will be forthright if there is something that is offensive or apology-worthy, but that frequent apologies are not necessary. Then, stop engaging. When you send a lengthy response, it fuels the apologiser's obsessing. Instead, try something along the lines of Yeah, I didn't take your comment that way. No Big Deal; doesn't need further discussion. and work towards being able to simply reply No big deal. In person, I agree with nantucket. Explain that the constant apologising is an issue and that you want to help them resolve it, and you won't participate or support it. There you go again apologising, cut that out, and change the subject.
posted by theora55 at 8:43 AM on May 16

It sounds like my experience with social anxiety and low self-esteem. I had a professor snap at me once "Stop apologizing for existing!!" And I did. It was hard and took work. It did not fix the anxiety or self esteem issues but I stopped all the annoying apologies.
posted by purple_bird at 10:55 AM on May 16

Canadian over-apologizer here, with pretty good self-esteem.

Sometimes 'I'm sorry' isn't intended to foist the responsibility of forgiveness onto you to channel back onto the apologizer... sometimes "I'm sorry" is synonymous with "Oopsie!" or "I feel silly" or "can you repeat that?" or "I'm in your way"

The type of people that brew and then return the next day to apologize are more anxious. To those people, I say "It's all right" cheerfully and move on.

But the everyday types of "sorry" I instinctively sprinkle on everything awkward doesn't merit a response, truly.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 2:21 PM on May 16

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