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How to break an apologizing habit

by Chris Plehal

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About a year ago, a comic went viral online. It was posted on blogs and websites with variations of the headline “Cartoonist Shows Why You Should Say ‘Thank You’ Instead of ‘I’m Sorry.’”

In one panel, the main character arrives late to meet a friend. “If you want to say ‘Thank you for waiting’” the text reads, “Don’t say, ‘Sorry I’m always late.’” In another panel, the character is engaged in deep conversation with a friend. “If you want to say ‘Thank you for listening,’” it reads, “don’t say ‘Sorry I’m just rambling.’”

The comic was created by Yao Xiao, a China-born illustrator living in New York City. It’s part of a series called Baopu, which Xiao describes as a search for “identities, connections and friendships through the fictional life of a young, queer immigrant.” Since its publication in March 2016, the comic has been featured on over 80 websites and blogs around the world, translated into multiple languages, and sold hundreds of prints on Etsy.

When I first read the comic, I was struck by its simplicity and power. I’ve kept it in the back of my mind ever since. As the comic’s one-year anniversary rolled around, I decided to catch up with Xiao by phone to understand its lasting effect.

Chris Plehal (CP): Why do you think this comic has resonated with so many people?

Yao Xiao (YX): I think it’s because it provides an alternative. It’s not just, “Hey, stop apologizing,” because that’s just another negative thing to carry around with you. “Thank you” is basically the same expression, but it’s bringing more positivity. It’s also something you can get better at doing it every day.

CP: What are some of the reactions you’ve received?

YX: I hear a lot from people who routinely apologize. Some of them carry the comic with them as a reminder. Then there are people who work in therapy—physicians, physical therapists, counselors. They use it with their patients to help them think about things more constructively. 

CP: Were you a routine apologizer yourself?

YX: I don’t think I was routinely apologizing. I had friends who did. I would say “You don’t have to do that. I’m your friend!” But I do have thoughts like, “Maybe I’m just not that great of a person” and I want to say “Sorry I’m such a loser.” But I realized there’s an alternative. If I haven’t actually done anything wrong, it’s more productive to say something else.

CP: Where did the inspiration for the comic come from?

YX: I was writing a blog about queer immigrant life, and there are a lot of things we feel out of place about. Sometimes you have dark thoughts. At the same time, there’s a “positivity movement” in American corporate culture. You’re supposed to turn anything negative into a positive. I always take that with a grain of salt; it’s kind of weird not to be able to say anything negative. But I had people who would do things for me, and make me feel better, and I wanted to put that into words. So I tried to take that positive-thinking philosophy and apply it.

CP: Did you get any negative reactions to it?

YX: I did. Some people said, “You should apologize when you actually do something wrong. When someone is late and they don’t apologize, that’s just rude. It’s not a good way of treating your friends.” And I agree, it can be misused. If I don’t do the dishes for ten days in a row, I can’t just say “Thank you for doing them for me!” You still need to be accountable for your actions.

CP: Saying “sorry” can become self-critical, but “thank you” is about a relationship with someone else. Do you think this technique is helpful in strengthening relationships?

YX: To a moderate degree. It can turn into something very manipulative. Sometimes you just need to say “Sorry, I’m in not a good place and there’s nothing I can do.” But it’s tremendously helpful for new relationships if you want to appreciate the other person. If someone else has done something for you, acknowledging that is important.

CP: The comic ends with the line “Don’t apologize for simply existing. Because it is not wrong.” Do you think a lot of people feel like they need to apologize for existing?

YX: Well, I got such a strong reaction to the comic, so I think a lot of people feel that way. I was surprised it was shared by so many people around the world. Sometimes, in a country like America, you can feel like you’re not creating value. Like, existing and being yourself is not enough. I’ve felt that way before. It’s a learning curve.

CP: Has the reaction to this comic changed you in any way?

YX: When I started writing Baopu, I didn’t know who my audience was. I was worried about not knowing who would want to read it. Now I’m finding a voice in mental health and self-care and I’m writing a lot more about these topics. The success of this comic makes me realize a lot of things I was doing to take care of myself can be really helpful to people going through similar things.

You can see more of Yao’s art on her website, or follow her on Twitter.

Illustrations by Yao Xiao

Chris Plehal

Chris Plehal is a writer who believes creativity can change the world for the better. His work has appeared on television, in children's books, in advertising, and on film. He currently splits his time between Philadelphia and New York. Chris has been meditating with Headspace since 2014.