Dear plane neighbor on JetBlue Flight number 949 from JFK to Grenada: I know that what I said was sorry, but that’s not what I meant literally. As a writer, I take words somewhat seriously, so I feel the need to elaborate on the truer nature of what I was seeking to communicate that morning.
Behind my apparent apology was a significantly stronger sentiment. Instead of choosing to say sorry—such a submissive word—I could have said any or all of the following (in as polite a way as possible):
Hey! You’re going to need to adjust yourself and your stuff. You don’t own this row or this armrest. I’m perfectly willing to share it with you—coexistence is a sign of civilized society after all. However, I am not willing to let you spread out to the point that your divested hoodie is partially in my lap and your arms have crossed over the armrest boundary and invaded my seat’s territory.
Don’t let my deferentially polite smile fool you. I am not going to make myself smaller for an almost five-hour flight so that you can be more comfortable than you deserve or the economy seat you purchased affords.
Why did I choose to use the word sorry? I’m not sure. I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that I’d done something wrong. If anything, it is you who should have apologized to me for being so obliviously self-centered, inconsiderate, or careless.
Truth be told, I tend to apologize for things that are neither mistakes nor my fault. I apologize when others invade my space. I apologize when asking to be heard. I apologize for my words and ideas and for the possibility that I might be wrong. I qualify so much of what I say as though everything I say is being judged. And even if everything I say is being judged, unless they hurt or offend someone (and even sometimes when they do), my words are nothing to apologize for.
My life, my existence, my thoughts, my feelings, my right to occupy a space or get by someone standing in my way—none of these are things to say sorry for. And so if I gave you the impression that I was sorry to make you aware of your encroachment into my space, I earnestly apologize. Even though I got the result I was aiming for, I should have chosen to use more assertive language, because I wasn’t sorry at all—not the slightest bit.
I seek to be polite without being overly apologetic or a pushover. A bit too often, I employ language (and body language) that implies an error on my part when there isn’t one or regret when I should have none. And so next time I need to get by someone who’s in my way or defend my personal space, I hope I’ll save sorry for a more appropriate time and use a stronger word in its place.