My week began in typical martyr fashion with a Monday morning mea culpa to my half-awake husband about not catching up on housework and laundry over the weekend.

Because on some level of consciousness I feared he might beat me to it, I had taken to preemptively summarizing my weekly failures in a penitent list: I was sorry that we still had pumpkins sitting on our mantel in late December, sorry that I spent so much time on the computer, sorry the counter was buried in paperwork, and I was sorry that the floors were sticky, the mirrors were smeary, and the dust was collecting its own dust.

He looked at me like I was on “Shark Tank” pitching an inflatable cat bed. I apologized for sounding insincere.

Tuesday, I said sorry to the cashier at the grocery store because he overcharged me. Weren’t those things on sale? Sorry for making someone go check on the price, and sorry to everybody behind me in line. Could he refund the difference, if it’s not too much trouble? Sorry I was paying attention to the price on the screen and have the gall to speak up and not let the store keep my money.

Wednesday, I said sorry to the piano teacher for my daughter’s lack of preparation and practice. I know there are other kids who would be thrilled with the opportunity to learn music, and I’m sorry they don’t live in my house. I pledged to do better and really force her to practice, sitting right next to her on the piano bench if I had to.

Thursday, I said sorry to my daughter over the phone when she called from school and I wouldn’t drive her homework up to her. Somehow, relearning how to add improper fractions so I could help her with every single problem, checking all her answers, and reminding her six times to put it in her backpack wasn’t enough. 

Friday, I met with some other parents at the elementary school to finish up a fundraising project I was in charge of. I apologized for needing their help and for not being more organized myself. I apologized to the school secretary for borrowing tape, and I apologized to the custodian for repeatedly needing her to unlock doors. When I was leaving, the same custodian stopped me in the hall and said, “You’re a volunteer – quit saying sorry.”

After apologizing for being so annoying about apologizing, I thought about what the custodian had said. Only in the feminine vernacular would a person who’s donating her time say sorry for it, but honestly, looking back on the week’s apologies, I really wasn’t sorry at all. I was many things, but I wasn’t sorry. And I wasn’t alone. Once I listened for it, I heard a refrain of women echoing each other in contrition.

Paying close attention to how often and why we apologize – exempting the times when it was warranted – I concluded that the phrase has morphed into a catch-all axiom of deflection.

We say sorry when what we mean is, “I’m overwhelmed and doing my best.”

We say sorry when we’re uncomfortable being assertive, yet need to be heard.

We say sorry in an effort to inoculate ourselves from criticism, as a kind of defensive maneuver.

We say sorry when what we want to say is, “Too bad for you. This is your problem, not mine.”

We say it when we feel wronged, projecting the sentiment outward in hopes it bounces back.

We apologize when we feel we’re in the way, taking up too much space, being too conspicuous.

We apologize when we feel guilty for disappointing someone, yet haven’t done anything wrong.

We say sorry when what we mean is, “Thank you, thank you so much.”

But mostly, we say sorry when words feel woefully inadequate, and in those cases a smile will do just fine.