Back in 2016 or so, I ran into an idea going around the self-help / trauma-informed-therapy / cognitive-behavioral internet: Learn to say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”. It’s turned out to be one of the most transformative pieces of advice I’ve ever taken. I’d like to share what it’s done for me, with just enough context to help others think about adopting it.

The idea

Whenever you want to apologize to someone who has done something for you, consider thanking them instead.

Examples

  • I trip and fall, and you help me up. I could apologize for inconveniencing you or I could thank you for helping me. 
  • I refer to the fat guy statue in a Chinese restaurant as Buddha, and you politely inform me that it's actually Budai / Hotei. I could apologize for being stupid or I could thank you for making me smarter.
  • I'm having an absolute garbage day and in the middle of an intellectual discussion with you I start crying. You stop talking, listen to me sympathetically, maybe give me a hug. I could apologize for being a mess or I could thank you for being kind.

In all these cases I’ve found that I end up feeling better about myself and more positive towards the other person if I thank them for helping me instead.

Is this just a generic post about growth mindset / cognitive-behavioral therapy / positivity bias?

It's got elements of all those things but I think there are some much more specific shifts that it creates in me and in the person I'm thanking. See below for more. 

But first, counterexamples

I do still apologize if I’ve objectively harmed someone or failed to fulfill a duty or a promise. Like:

  • I trip and fall, spilling coffee on you.
  • I tell you the guy is the Buddha, you believe me and repeat it around a group of Chinese people, and they think you're an idiot. 
  • I’m having a terrible day and in the middle of an intellectual discussion with you I call you an idiot. 

That’s what apologies are for. But I’ve learned that a lot of my apologies were just for, like, existing, and that’s where I’ve found it awesome to express gratitude instead.

Why “thank you” is awesome

Ways saying “thank you” affects me

  • It frames things in terms of a positive emotion, gratitude[1], instead of a negative emotion, regret.
  • It puts us on the same side. When I apologize, I feel like there’s me, the hapless mess, and the other person, who is competent and picking up the slack for me. When I thank them, I feel like we’re buddies working together.
  • It keeps me engaged. "I’m sorry" is about my own behavior, so it works with my natural tendency to disappear into my own head and ruminate about how badly I screwed up. “Thank you” is about the other person’s behavior, so it focuses me on continuing our interaction instead. 
  • And in the long game, it reinforces to me that relationships thrive on a give-and-take of kindnesses. Even if they do a little more for me than I do for them, we both end up better off than if we carefully kept the sum forever at zero.

Ways I hope it affects the other person:

  • When you apologize to someone, you’re emphasizing that you did something to them. But most people would probably prefer to think of themselves as an altruistic / kind / efficacious person who chose to help you[2], and feel good about themselves as a result. Thanking them helps them with this as well as showing that you empathize with their actual emotional state.
  • Similarly, “thank you” implies that I’m happy about what they’ve done for me, which enhances our connection by emphasizing that we’re feeling the same emotions.
  • When someone asks your pardon or expresses that they feel bad, you’re expected to tell them “it’s okay” or something similar. That means that in my efforts to atone for bothering them, I’ve put another obligation on them — making sure I don’t feel too bad. Thanking them doesn’t do that.[3]

I have less evidence that any of these benefits actually occur, but they align with a lot of good practices like emphasizing commonality with other people and showing that you accurately understand their emotions. I’ve never noticed a “thank you” aggravating someone, anyway.

When might this be bad advice?

Perhaps if:

  • You end up saying thank you when you’ve actually harmed someone or broken your word (see examples above)
  • You thank someone who sees you as arrogant or entitled, and would like you better if you did some self-effacement
  • You thank someone who believes they’re so much better than you[4] that they actually do expect you to apologize for having ordinary human needs around them
  • I’m sure there are other reasons specific to different personalities or subcultures

Conclusion

Maybe later I’ll write more about the implicit models this activates or what it tells me about my lay theories of social bonds. For now: When you feel obligated to apologize to someone, consider telling them “thank you” instead! I’d be very interested to hear about anyone’s experiences with this, along with doubts or questions.

  1. ^

    Emotions researchers consider gratitude positive; it's been extensively studied as a psychological intervention, might help, and at least probably doesn't hurt. Some people might not experience it that way, perhaps because they interact with people who treat gratitude as a debt they can hold over you. If this applies to you, you might benefit from trying to fix that in the long term but I wouldn't say you should force it. 

  2. ^

    Maybe it wasn't an entirely free choice, eg, if they think other people would have seen it your plight and judged them negatively for not helping. But: 1) they're adults, they could have declined to help anyway; and 2) given that they've already helped you, both of you will probably be happier if you nudge them to focus on the voluntary component.

  3. ^

    I think there are a lot of nuances and culturally-dependent qualifications to this one and I may not be capturing it perfectly, but I know one person who's told me this is extremely important to them in our interactions, so I'll keep it on the list. 

  4. ^

    This is "better" in the moral/essentialized sense, and I think it sucks. There are people who are objectively higher-status than I am, busier than I am, or better than I am at almost everything, and they can still help me from an attitude of beneficence or largesse rather than being a dick about it. That said, when your life requires you to deal with people who are going to help you but be dicks about it, then be cautious about the "thank you" strategy.

New Comment
15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
[-]plex139

I (independently?) came up with this to help navigate some otherwise tricky dynamics a few years ago, and it has been extremely positive. It's great especially when the other person has boundaries that they feel not fully comfortable with asserting, thanking them for giving you the information you need to build better models of their boundaries is often so much healthier than apologising for crossing them in a way neither of you actually feels is blameworthy.

Positive reinforcement for both asserting boundaries and for updating models of how to not cross them is just wonderful compared to the various nearby "both people feel bad/guilty about the boundary enforcement" outcomes.

To add to the anecdata, I've heard it advised (like Raemon below) and started using it occasionally. It has been good for me, although not transformative - possibly I come from different baseline of how important the change is, I don't apologise constantly, but as I've learned, it used to be more than I should.

I think I have some tendency to apologize the way this post warns about, and have heard the "say thank you" advice and considered it in the past. But, I'm curious to hear from anyone who's been on the receiving end of the "thank you" apology substitutes and how it feels to them.

I have been on the receiving end of such, and I consider “say thank you instead” to be bad advice. The problem is specifically with the “instead” part. There is no reason for “instead”. It should be “in addition to”.

In cases like this one:

I refer to the fat guy statue in a Chinese restaurant as Buddha, and you politely inform me that it’s actually Budai / Hotei. I could apologize for being stupid or I could thank you for making me smarter.

I find that replacing the apology with a “thank you” is offputting. It is good to thank someone for correcting you, but it is improper to do that without acknowledging that you were mistaken before they corrected you. It would be better to thank the other person in addition to… well, not necessarily even apologizing, really, but something like—“ah, my mistake, thank you for the correction”. But merely something like “thank you for the information” seems like a deliberate effort to avoid acknowledging the mistake, and leads one to suspect that you are not being sincere in your response.

Similarly (though less importantly), in a case like this one:

I’m having an absolute garbage day and in the middle of an intellectual discussion with you I start crying. You stop talking, listen to me sympathetically, maybe give me a hug. I could apologize for being a mess or I could thank you for being kind.

It is well to thank your interlocutor for being kind, but I do not see why you shouldn’t also apologize. The two are not mutually exclusive in the least. And avoiding any acknowledgment of the impropriety of your behavior is suspect.

Note, by the way, that combining the apology and the thanks avoids this problem:

When someone asks your pardon or expresses that they feel bad, you’re expected to tell them “it’s okay” or something similar. That means that in my efforts to atone for bothering them, I’ve put another obligation on them — making sure I don’t feel too bad. Thanking them doesn’t do that.[3]

If you say “sorry”, indeed the social script nowadays is to reply with “it’s okay”, which has the problems that the OP describes. But if you say “sorry” and then follow it up with “thanks”, then the other person can reply to the “thanks” (with “you’re welcome”, or some such) and treat the apology as something that requires no response.

(In a case like “I trip and fall, and you help me up. I could apologize for inconveniencing you or I could thank you for helping me.”, the thanks alone is sufficient, because this is such a trivial situation that it really matters very little how you handle it—showing a token degree of acknowledgment, of some sort, is sufficient, and the specifics just don’t make much difference.)

It's helpful to expand the "thank you" into a "thank you for..." statement. This completes the conversion from mechanical submission to thoughtful and specific gratitude. From the examples above, the expansion would be "thanks for the correction" and "thanks for the support".

If someone chooses to help you, you don't need to apologize for needing that help.

Agreed that this always makes any kind of appreciation feel more meaningful to me. For that matter, I also think putting some detail or mechanistic thought into apologies is a good idea. If I've actually done something wrong then I think it's worth the effort to show the other person I understand what it was and have some idea about how to not do it again. And if I haven't done something wrong, then trying to express my reasoning should help me recognize that I'm apologizing for having needs / existing / "making" the other person help me. 

While I agree with your first point that it is important to first admit a mistake before thanking the person for helping you with new information, I would challenge the belief that because crying in front of another person is often seen as improper in certain social situations that it is something to be sorry about. Perhaps the idea that crying in front of others stems from an unhealthy society and the belief that is if improper to do so is actually harmful to people who feel they must repress themselves in this way. By not apologising, even though there is often a strong conditioned impulse to do so , we have to opportunity to stop reproducing these kind of beliefs and help to create a world in which everybody feels safe enough to not only express there own pain but to sit with the pain of others.

Yes, we have been hearing about this sort of “challenge” for several decades now. I think that, at this point, we can say that we’ve given views like what you describe a fair hearing, and can be justified in dismissing them.

Bursting into tears in a professional or academic situation is something to be sorry about. Not that sorry—it’s not like assaulting someone, or stealing, or committing fraud, or whatever else—but certainly a faux pas. A forgiveable one (if it doesn’t happen often, anyway), by all means—but a faux pas nonetheless. That is as it should be. People absolutely should repress the urge to cry in situations of this sort, just as they should repress the urge to kick the table in anger, or start yelling insults at one’s interlocutor, or shriek in glee, or have any other sort of uncontrolled emotional outburst. That is the mark of a healthy ability to control one’s emotional expression, and is not somehow problematic.

we have to opportunity to stop reproducing these kind of beliefs and help to create a world in which everybody feels safe enough to not only express there own pain but to sit with the pain of others.

But we should “reproduce” those beliefs (that such emotional outbursts out to be suppressed). We should not yield to uncontrolled expressions of pain in professional/academic/similar situations.

And it is absolutely not appropriate to expect, or force, people to “sit with the pain of others”. Rely on your family, your friends, your therapist, for such things—but not your coworkers, or your colleagues, or casual acquaintances; that is inconsiderate and selfish.

I agree that there are many cases where the two go very well together! It would have been good for me to go into that. Also agreed that there are a lot of ways you can add detail and specificity. 

I'm finding it funny to think about "my mistake" in this context -- in some subcultures (including rationalists, but also others) I think of saying "my mistake" as actually coming across as a self-confident, high status thing to do! At least, when you've obviously made a mistake and it's only a matter of acknowledging it. 

Damn, thank you for this post. I will put this to practice immediately!

Sorry if this was a bad comment!

That’s what apologies are for. But I’ve learned that a lot of my apologies were just for, like, existing, and that’s where I’ve found it awesome to express gratitude instead.

I relate to this so hard...

I've seen and considered this advice before, but when I am doing perhaps too much apologizing, the reason is usually that I actually am trying to get signal on whether/how much I've upset the other person.

Even if they only say "it's okay" out of obligation, I can usually tell from tone and word choice and so on whether that's what's going on. There's a big difference between a terse "it's fine" and a warm "what? No, it's totally fine, you have nothing to apologize for". It's not perfect, of course, since people are sometimes intentionally deceptive here, but it's at least a decent chance of decent signal.

Thanking the person does not generally achieve this. In a sufficiently close relationship with sufficiently direct communication norms, I can sometimes just ask directly, but it would still be pretty weird to ask for every minor thing.

A really neat directly applicable article on LessWrong, thanks for sharing this! Since the trigger is obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to implement. Seems worth it, as those moments happen often to me.

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2025. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year.

Hopefully, the review is better than karma at judging enduring value. If we have accurate prediction markets on the review results, maybe we can have better incentives on LessWrong today. Will this post make the top fifty?