It’s something I grumble over a lot: for someone whose job it is to think about words every day, I don’t always seem to do as well when it comes to my everyday talking and what words come out of my mouth. More often than I like, I find myself going over what I say with the power of hindsight and wishing I could change things.

It’s not always bad per se. While there are situations I wish I could take back what I said, I do think sometimes it is just life and that you have to learn from it. So, these exercises do, in the end, help me do that; be aware of my actions and learn from them.

One habit I have noticed in my everyday speech (or rather, I have to admit, it was pointed out to me) is that I apologise a lot. “Too much” according to some of those around me.

It is hard to think about it in numbers, because I think I do it without intention, but I do believe I mutter “sorry” at least ten times a day.

One look at my email sent folder, and I can see the evidence. I begin my messages with “Hello XYZ, Sorry for the wait” even though all I had done was step away for lunch for half an hour, during which time the email arrived.

The other day I was in the office kitchen making tea, and someone else was doing the same. So, I waited for the person to be done with the communal carton of milk. “Would you like me to leave it here?”, they asked, pointing to the counter. “Yes, sorry,” I replied.

Almost every day I approach paying by card somewhere (despite the technology existing for years, and a global pandemic that made the process of it a lot more common, even preferred, by many retailers) I say: “Can I pay by card please, sorry.”

What am I sorry for? I don’t have any other way to pay, and the communal milk is for sharing. Plus, it was me that was left with the tedious (I am joking) task to put the milk back in the fridge.

These sorts of sorrys are the same I mutter when someone holds open a door and I run to not inconvenience them, or if someone waits for me to pass on a path too narrow to allow for more than one person. They are quick, they fill a void, and then life goes on and I don’t always really feel the same repent I do when I say sorry and truly mean it.

Apologising “too much” (seen as part of being very, some say overly, polite) is seen as a common British trait. While some numbers do seem to exist (a dated YouGov survey from 2015 said a third of Brits questioned felt they say “sorry” too much, and that people in the UK were more prone to apologising for things that weren’t their fault – someone else bumping into them; someone else sneezing – than Americans), there aren’t many steadfast records to prove this though.

More, I think this perception is one of those cultural stereotypes people like to plaster whole nations with. I do find it funny that I am from the nation that has had the other end of the stick handed to them. Germans are seen as direct. Some say “too direct”, others even say “rude.”

To be honest, I don’t like these sorts of things. They take away from the diversity of people that make up a nation. Yes, I would agree that, generally speaking, people here are more likely to sugar coat things in everyday conversation to avoid speaking out of tact.

In Germany, people are less likely to beat around the bush (or, as Germans like to say it “um den heissen Brei reden” i.e talk around the hot porridge. Two wonderfully weird idioms that mean the same thing). Neither way of behaving is bad. They are just two different cultures, so one will feel slightly alien to the other.

That said, I just don’t believe that these generalisations are an exact science, or explain all behaviour. I am German and have always apologised a lot. It isn’t a new trait. While there is something to be said about the human skill to adapt to your surroundings – I definitely have changed in the decade I have been here – I don’t think that such a drastic switch in personality was included, the second I stepped off the plane in the UK: Start drinking tea with milk, check. Start over apologising, check.

For whatever reason I say sorry a lot, and I do think that some of it is just dependent on who you are as a person, I have also come to realise that it isn’t necessarily the best to be this way.

Of course, there are many situations in which an apology is necessary. The dictionary defines sorry as an adjective as “the feeling [of] sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, especially because something unpleasant has happened or been done.”

Saying sorry is an acknowledgement; it shows empathy. An understanding that my actions or something that has happened might affect the other person. So, in many situations, we need it.

Anyone that is blessed (cursed?) to spend time with me regularly, will know that, for a lot of it, I am late. While often that is my fault, and therefore 100% warrants an apology, sometimes it isn’t. A bus didn’t come, my train got cancelled; things out of my control have happened.

But do I then not apologise? Of course I still say “sorry.” Because sorry, in this case, shows that I empathise with the person waiting for me. I mean it when I say it. I am sorry they had to wait, even if it wasn’t my fault.

Even more important is to say “sorry” in situations where it was us that caused feelings of sadness or disappointment. It would be awful not to acknowledge that. It’s these situations where I do believe my apologies are sincere, so they aren’t ones I am talking about when I say I want to say sorry less.

What I am trying to get at is whether “sorry” is the right word to throw around so much without thinking, ultimately distorting its true meaning? I don’t think it is, especially when we have so many other words in the vast catalogue of the English language to choose from.

When I look at some of the things I have said sorry for – others waiting to let me pass, for example – a “thank you” seems just as powerful and acknowledging of the situation. Actually, more so.

Thank you, in this case, gives far more of a nod to the positive action of the other person, than a somewhat insincere sorry ever would.

So, I am not calling for a total change to the status quo, and will likely not stop (over)apologising completely. Just that, once again, I am going to try to change my ways and think about my words a bit more. To say “sorry” in moderation and, more importantly, with the authenticity and sincerity it deserves.