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People say sorry too much

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Let me start by saying I would not consider myself a theater kid. Sure, I was a kid who did theater growing up, but that’s not my whole thing (as in, I don’t know the entire script of “Hamilton” by heart, and you won’t hear me harmonizing while singing “Happy Birthday”).

Regardless, acting has been a big part of my life, and I’ve learned a lot from my countless hours in rehearsal beyond technical skills like how to cry on command or make sense of some of the longest Shakespearian monologues. 

Perhaps the most influential person I worked with during my time on the boards was my high school theater director, Mr. McCamish. As an initially intimidating bald man with a booming voice and the ability to hold a plank for eight minutes straight, he took some warming up to. 

And I mean that somewhat literally. Every rehearsal began with physical and vocal exercises to revive us after a tiring day at school. We needed to build up the endurance to perform a 90-minute show, he would always say. So, tongue twisters and arm circles and dancing jacks and zip-zap-zop became the routine start of my afternoons.

Usually that would be the extent of my grueling physical activity for the day. Usually. The exception came — believe it or not — anytime that someone said “sorry.”

The punishment? Everybody in the cast and crew — regardless of who said the “s” word — had to drop whatever they were doing and do 10 pushups, to his cadence. McCamish didn’t care what role you played, if you missed your stage entrance, messed up your lines or broke character. He said apologizing threw everyone off-focus. It wasted precious rehearsal time.

Once, I fumbled my words, so I said sorry, as a reflex. I swore under my breath, so I said sorry, as a reflex, for the second time. Twenty pushups. Everybody groaned as they dropped their scripts on the dusty floor and got in position. My face was boiling. 

“You don’t actually mean it. You’re not truly sorry when you do that.” I hung my head, sheepishly, thinking about if what he said felt true to me, if it really wasn’t that big of a deal. He started his cadence, “Down… up…” Then everyone joined in on the count: “ONE.” “Down... up…” “TWO.” You get the picture.

I used to think it was counterintuitive: the time wasted saying sorry once didn’t compare to the time it took for a group of 20 kids to do 10 (modified) pushups. But his logic was that if we’re going to be wasting any time, we might as well be doing something to make us stronger. I never liked that reasoning. 

Having lived in the Carolinas my whole life, I had to adjust to the more curt air of my New England high school. As a kid, I felt that politeness was the most respected virtue, and stepping on someone’s toes was to be avoided at all costs. Say sorry, step back, never interrupt, that sort of thing. Especially as a girl. Especially as a girl speaking to a man.

I didn’t feel like that during my high school years. Perhaps I had grown up more. Perhaps it was the new absence of southern hospitality that cushioned my childhood. Not to say all New Englanders are cold-hearted; my interactions simply felt more direct. Less sugarcoated, more genuine, sometimes bluntly honest.

While I don’t find myself on stage anymore, many of McCamish’s lessons still impact my life. One particularly, and perhaps unintentionally, has stuck with me most.

A word loses its meaning the more it’s used.

I think about curse words that used to leave me in shock when I was younger. Now, I don’t bat an eye. When I ask someone how they’re doing and they reply with “good,” that gives me next to nothing.

Apologies that are truly sincere are a whole other thing. It’s easy to think that someone is just saying sorry to be nice, polite or cover their bases. I can be guilty of it sometimes, too, don’t get me wrong. But, always hearing people talk that way makes it easy to get frustrated when you feel someone is truly in the wrong.

When you cause someone serious emotional or physical harm — the only situation McCamish deemed appropriate for us to say the “s” word — “sorry” likely won’t hold the necessary weight in a sincere apology.

There are ways to be polite and to apologize without simply saying “sorry.” I believe everybody — including myself — has the ability to communicate more intentionally than that. Sometimes it’s intimidating, and sometimes I have no idea how to articulate my true thoughts. Sometimes it’s easier in writing, and sometimes certain people make it more difficult.

People often overlook the value in saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It’s impossible to please everyone with everything you say, so I feel there’s little use in trying. The most meaningful connections flourish with transparency — no matter how casual, intimate or professional – and it’s a shame that people, often women, shy away from that.

Maybe my ideas won’t be the most well-received. Maybe they don’t make much sense to you. But, for some reason, I’m not sorry about it. Not one bit. 

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