Often, when we say “I’m sorry,” the words end up flat and the apology hollow. It’s time to become more conscious of our words to better reflect our feelings
I feel like my grandmother when I start a sentence with “Back in the day…” but in this one case, I think it is appropriate. So…
Back in the days when I was growing up, when a person said those two magic words — “I’m sorry” — it held an almost revered meaning. Most of the time, the words were accompanied by a grand gesture, a comforting touch, a strong shoulder to cry on, or a parent saying you should. But as I have aged, that no longer seems to be the case.
Social situations and peers have dictated that those sentimental feelings should be pushed aside as they do not have a place in the grown-up world.
Now, “I’m sorry” has become a common placeholder for a more valued phrase when you are attempting to placate another.
Recently, while on the phone with the insurance company (feel free to add any service industry that is more appropriate for your life) for a total of one hour, I was rewarded by a person jumping on the line every 6-7 minutes to tell me how sorry they were for the delay. Since I was multitasking at the time, I heard the words but did not pay them much mind. But as time grew longer, I found myself getting more and more irritated by the fake words. Finally, at my breaking point, when the woman said: “I’m sorry for the delay.” I responded with, “No, I don’t think you are.” Suddenly silence on the other side of the phone. Had no one ever questioned her sincerity before because she certainly did not know how to respond? I sense that one of their scripts simply read, “Tell the client you are sorry.”
Although I wanted to explain my feeling, I felt that it would fall on deaf ears. But I did begin to think about when the words I’m sorry became the universal excuse/catch-all whenever you wanted absolution. The actual definition of the phrase means “Beg your pardon” or “ Forgive me,” and neither of these is a substitute for how we use the word. It most assuredly was not how my mystery on-hold-girl was feeling.
It is amazing to me that when you stop and really listen to people, you notice how often they are apologizing for things that they have no control over. My students often say, “I’m sorry I got that wrong.” What they should be saying is, “I feel bad that I let you down,” or “I don’t know, and it embarrasses me.”
The truth is, taking responsibility for our mistakes is much more difficult than just asking for forgiveness.
Other times I hear people apologizing for things like the weather (“I’m sorry your cold’) or even your mood (“I’m sorry you feel sad today.”) Maybe it is their way of showing empathy, but it comes out more like a platitude since any overused word inevitably loses its power. Each time we apologize, we are saying I am responsible for the pain I have caused you, and I would like you to forgive me. But are you really responsible for someone else’s physical or emotional wellbeing? No.
I was having a conversation with a friend about this topic and she had an interesting approach. She told me that her ‘issue’ was people arriving late to a meeting and saying they are sorry. How can two words rectify wasting busy people’s time? How arrogant of the late person to think they are important enough to wait for. The better comment upon entering a room late would be, “Thank you for your patience.” The simple rephrasing allows you to acknowledge your lateness while at the same time recognizing that the people waiting for you deserve respect.
Here are some other ways to rephrase your thoughts:
- Instead of “I’m sorry you are stressed,” say “Would you like me to help?”
- Instead of “I am sorry to bother you,” say, “I was hoping you could help me with something.”
- Instead of saying, “I am sorry that you are sad,” say, “I am concerned about you.”
When we teach children their first words, we also express the meaning that the words should have. I think we can learn so much from these little minds. When my son was little and he did something that either he knew was wrong or that we taught him was wrong, he would bow his head and say, “My sorry.” It was the most endearing statement because not only was he feeling remorse, but he realized that saying those words was equivalent to giving a small piece of his heart. “My sorry” is giving something of me and hoping you will be open enough to receive and cherish it. Unfortunately, as he grew older, “My sorry” turned into “I’m sorry,” a change that lost some of its personal appeal and meaning.
Given how easy it is to toss off this oft-used phrase, what is the right way to say, “I’m sorry”?
My husband is like many men who guard their feelings and are reticent to express their emotions. But if my husband says he is sorry, he does it while looking into my eyes, and I can feel it in my soul. You see, if you treasure the words and only use them when they are appropriate, their meaning is so much greater.
You may also enjoy reading Silent Communication: Honoring the Space Between the Words, by Doris Schachenhofer