How to Stop Saying Sorry When Things Aren’t Your Fault
In Hindi, you don’t say ‘sorry;’ you ask for forgiveness. So, growing up, I made the mistake of apologizing for who I am.
bhindi karela tindora
While immigrating and caring for a loved one who has a chronic illness seem like two entirely different things, they both are processes in which I lost control and had to adapt to traumatic change. Unknowingly, I had carried apologizing, the crutch I had used as a child to survive migration, into adulthood. It was the crutch I was leaning on as I cared for my partner, rather than confronting my own sorrow.
“What’s the word for sorry in Hindi?” my partner asked me recently.
He started learning Hindi about five years ago. While there were gaps in his vocabulary built on some classes, apps, and very rudimentary ‘lessons’ from me, ‘sorry’ seemed like an essential phrase he surely could not have missed.
“It’s mujhe maaf keejiye,” I replied to him, expecting him to respond with familiarity.
“That’s ‘please forgive me’ though,” he said. “What if you’re just saying sorry?”
I stumbled back a reply. “I don’t think there is a word for just ‘sorry.’ It’s always about seeking forgiveness.”
In Western culture, we’re taught at an early age that the key tenets of good behavior fall somewhere between saying thank you and sorry. Say thank you when people do something nice for you. Say sorry when you’ve done something wrong, or when you’ve made a mistake, or when you might just have misunderstood. Sorry was a cover-all. It’s an accessible word to use when you can’t always express what it is you’re feeling beyond some amount of regret or sorrow.
The same has never been true for apologizing within my Indian family and community. Sorry is not a phrase to cover the full ambit of situations that fill you with awkwardness, casual missteps, or pain felt by others. In its Hindi evocation, apologizing is a deliberate and conscious act accompanied by some form of personal reckoning.
When I left India, I was relatively fluent in Hindi. Though I never had the chance to properly learn it in a classroom, I have held it tightly. I feared that letting go of my ever-shrinking recollection of phrases would somehow mean letting go of my heritage and how I understood the world. Now, the few occasions I get to speak in Hindi fall into the transactional interactions I have with my parents, my partner, and the Uncle at the grocery store from whom I buy my aged basmati rice and imported frozen bhindi. I don’t use Hindi to express my feelings, and so I hadn’t used it to say I was sorry.
I have been trying to stop apologizing for things that are not my fault. When I think of all the situations when I would say ‘sorry’ in English, to say mujhe maaf keejiye instead doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it forces me to ask for forgiveness—something I cannot ask for or be given if I am not responsible for the hurt.
Thinking of apologizing in my home language has allowed me to understand the act of apologizing as inherently connected to asking for forgiveness. It reminds me that I do not need to blame myself for others’ pain. I can empathize with it without the need to offer language to take personal responsibility.
By thinking of saying sorry in Hindi first, I pause my compulsion to say sorry and instead concentrate on what I could offer. I could offer love to my partner in his struggle with his illness. I could provide empathy to my parents for their ongoing difficulties caused by a life of migration and being part of a diaspora. And perhaps I could offer myself acceptance by refusing to apologize for myself in a Western world, by letting go of saying sorry for who I was and who I am.
In the spaces I occupy now, I think of how I can survive not by apologizing, but by using language as a way to articulate these feelings a younger version of me wasn’t able to. I let go of saying sorry as a way of accepting what I can do and who I can be, and apologizing only in those moments when I truly seek forgiveness. Being myself is not one of them.
Kamna Muddagouni is a writer and anti-discrimination lawyer based in Narrm (Melbourne). Having migrated from Mumbai, she now lives on the Stolen Land of the Kulin Nation. Kamna writes on issues including legal rights for young people, intersections between feminism, pop culture and political identity, and her experiences as a third culture kid.