Hard to Say I’m Sorry

Sorry is just a word

A stencilled note saying I am sorry
The Hardest Word We Overuse

According to a recent survey, the average Brit says ‘sorry’ around eight times a day. One in eight of us say it once an hour. That’s more apologies thrown out than in any other country…except for Japan.


Ask yourself whether you’re one of the average or one of the eight. Then ask your friends which group they would put you in. You may be surprised to find the answers differ.

Sorry has become a throwaway remark for many of us. Half the time, a sorry doesn’t even register for either the apologiser or the apologee. This seems rather at odds with a word which exists to show an emotional depth of penance.


Of course we have the sorry for being wrong, for making a mistake, or for upsetting someone.


But we also have the sorry for not hearing. The sorry when someone bumps into us. The sorry for paying with a handful of change instead of notes. The sorry for stepping off the train first.


We are polite to the sorrowful degree of our inherent servility.


Is this a problem? After all, there are far worse words we could use with such abandon. But, as is often the case with language, the overuse of sorry has weakened the meaning it conveys.


Face it. We all make mistakes. How do we let people know that we recognise them? How do we ask for forgiveness?


How do we say we're sorry?


The origins of sorrow

Sorry comes from the Old English sarig, meaning pained or distressed. This in turn originates from the West Germanic sore, related to the modern German sehr.


Sehr translates as very. Sore relates to pain that is physical. Making sorry literally mean a severe pain or distress.


A display of sorrow maybe?


Well not quite.


The word sorrow bears no relation to the word sorry. Their similar definition comes from the assonance of the two words, being potential paronyms.


Sorrow comes from the Old English sorg. It has its origins in the German for care or worry. It is a distress that is more mental than physical.


But being sorry is not about being sorrowful.


The (un)appreciated sorry

It’s also common for people to use sorry as a passive rebuttal. To make oneself appear empathetic or understanding of others. Whilst not taking any responsibility.


Sorry if …that upsets you.

…that isn’t what you wanted to hear.

…that’s not convenient.

Sorry for …any misunderstanding.

…the confusion.


The use of sorry here has nothing to do with guilt or remorse.


It extends to the passive aggressive use of appreciate.

I appreciate …this may be difficult for you.

…you may be busy.

…your patience and understanding.


If you want to apologise, don’t be appreciative.


On that note, if you want to apologise, don’t apologise.


The defensive apology

Offering apologies seems a more formal way of saying sorry. When someone in the public eye fucks up, an apology is what we expect. What we demand. Apology may be the keyword on Boris Johnson’s epitaph.


A look through Hansard – the register of all verbal and written communication in the Houses of Lords and Commons – shows that apology, apologies or apologise has been used 2,061 times in the last year. Slightly higher than the 1,973 uses of sorry.


But it’s only fairly recently that apology took the meaning we give it today.


Apology comes from the Greek apologia. The literal translation, and the meaning it conveyed up until the 17th century, is ‘a speech in one’s defence’. As such, an apology is less a recognition of fault or regret of one’s own actions. It is more a justification of those actions against the potential disapproval of others.


An apology doesn’t tell people you’re sorry.


An apology explains why you think their offence is unjustified.


The shallow sorry

On its own, the word sorry is little more than a phonetic grunt. An instinctive reaction. It rarely comes with depth or meaning.


It’s not that we don’t want to mean it. It’s just that’s not how we are taught it.


For many of us, being told to “say sorry” triggers memories of a childhood admonishment. It doesn’t lead to an awareness of self-responsibility.


It’s like “say thank you”. If the meaning behind these statements is explained, the child learns social skills. But if the focus is just on the words, they become hollow, empty statements.


A single sorry does not show any feeling.


A single sorry does not count as an apology.


Start with sorry

Don’t use a sorry as the last word of a conversation. Don’t sign off your emails with a sorry.


For an apology to mean something, sorry should be just the start. The word itself is the least important word in any sorry.


The simplest way around this is through repetition. And with the embellishment of adjectives. This is why you hear the basic attempts of people being “really, really, truly sorry”. Or reiterating that they are “sorry, so very sorry”.


Which is a start. At least you get the impression that the meaning is heartfelt.


If you want this to be clearer, you need to commit to your sorry. Think of the word as just a springboard. Its purpose is merely to lead into the real ‘sorry’.


The sorry should be paired with the fault you are recognising. It shoud also be active (ie, include you with the action)


Sorry… … I turned up late


It should then acknowledge the impact of the action:


…and that I interrupted your meeting…


Finally, to be a fully thought through apology, show penitence by committing to reparative action:


…I will prepare early for the follow-up on Tuesday.


Does this matter?

I’m not saying that every sorry we utter must lead to full explanation and self-flagellation. A flippant sorry is still an accepted signal of a polite member of society. Better to be overusing it than not using it at all.


But when you really want to apologise or empathise, don’t confuse the word with the sentiment.


When you have been wronged, an empty sorry is worse than no sorry at all. Hearing a company “appreciates your…” or is “sorry if…” will more likely turn you against the company than make you feel understood.


Taking time to say you’re sorry shows you understand people. And people are more important than words.