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We Need to Stop Saying “Sorry” Unless We Mean It

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I’ll admit it. I have a problem with the word “sorry.” In every way, this word permeates my daily life. Bump someone in the hallway? “Sorry!” Need to find a polite way to tell the person in front of you in the coffee line that it’s their turn to order? “Sorry!” Tie an air knot in the operating room — God forbid, but also “Sorry!” My attendings have noticed. I’ve been corrected on more than one occasion by both my male and female bosses. “Are you legitimately sorry?” they’ve queried.

This bad habit of mine made me curious about the origin of the word. Am I actually sorry, I’ve wondered? I once joked during a case that what I really meant was “I regret not being perfect during that previous move.” In modern usage, “I’m sorry” is literally intended as an apology. Certainly, in the operating room, a trainee should not be actively apologizing for unintended procedural errors or less than perfect suturing. Instead, the trainee should learn and improve with their next move. I think that most surgical faculty would be in support of such proactive behavior on the part of residents and medical students.

According to an article on the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s website, the first definition of the Greek word that gave us apology (apo: off; logos: speech) was to provide a defense or justification for something that may be judged as wrong by others. Clearly, by this definition, trainees should not defend their actions in the operating room; rather the trainee should strive to spend more time in simulation to improve skills that need perfecting or take on similar cases where repetition of similar procedural skills will promote retention and motor memory. My faculty have always made it clear that it is their responsibility to invest in the development and progression of the residents. However, as residents, we have to do our part in our training, whether that means pushing for independent practice or volunteering to run a skills lab for junior residents.

If “sorry” is not intended as an apology, what might a serial abuser of the word actually mean? According to a Psychology Today article, modern users of “I’m sorry” may be expressing guilt or regret. But I would continue to argue that it is both inappropriate and unproductive to waste time saying sorry when instead we should pay attention to our actions, make adjustments and move forward. Do better or be more efficient next time. This should always be the goal.

I know I am not the only one who overuses sorry. In fact, I often notice my fellow residents and medical students saying “I’m sorry” in situations where it is not necessary. Unfortunately, this seems like an issue that is more prevalent among female trainees. While the number of women in medicine and medical schools is increasing at a rate not previously seen, we are still underrepresented in surgery. It can be a daily struggle to have our medical advice taken seriously and interpreted in a way that is equal to that of our male colleagues. Spewing the word sorry will not help our cause.

I am not arguing against any and all use of the word sorry. At times, genuine regret is felt and should be expressed. Using the word can even aid in healing. Stated sincerely, “I’m sorry for the loss of your father” or “I’m sorry we couldn’t do more” can demonstrate shared grief and provide comfort to a patient or family member who has suffered loss. This is so common in our job and should not be overlooked. What I am arguing for is more intentional — more purposeful — use of language. We have to be careful about the message that our words convey, not only to our patients and colleagues, but to ourselves.

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