Many bloggers have touched on this subject in recent years, but here’s a little thought to throw into the mix. And it all revolves around the ambiguity of language. People often exploit it, whether intentionally or not; because at the very least, such ambiguity gives us wriggle room, or even a place to hide.

I’m talking about the problem with ‘saying sorry’

It first hit home when we lived in East Africa. Ugandan English has many pleasures all of its own (see previous post). Soon after moving, I remember having gone into work with a streaming cold, and one of my students instinctively sympathised by saying ‘Sorry.’ Slightly nonplussed, I replied by saying, ‘Oh don’t worry. It’s not your fault.’ To which he replied, ‘I never said it was.’ We then went our separate ways, both bemused and a little put out that our attempts at sympathetic connection had so singularly failed.

But it’s actually a rather lovely use of the word. It’s short-hand, but not as potentially patronising as ‘I feel so sorry for you’. It obviously doesn’t suggest the acceptance of blame; instead it offers the sharing of sympathy. Which has to be a good thing. And so after living there a few years, it naturally crept into my everyday usage.

Sadness (the actress Ellen Terry) by Julia Margaret Cameron 1864
Sadness (the actress Ellen Terry) by Julia Margaret Cameron 1864

But here is the problem. I was watching the testimony ofsomeone hauled up in front of a parliamentary committee a while back, someone who had been institutionally responsible for the total collapse of that company. And he seemed to come across full of contrition and shame over what had happened. Understandably. He was then asked whether he would apologise. And his words went something on these lines:

I’m so, so sorry for all those people whose lives have been adversely affected by this disaster. I’m sorry for all those who lost their jobs and who lost their savings…

So far, so… well, not so good. For in this context, ‘sorry’ was used only to convey sympathy and not guilt. But the subtlety of the word is such that it initially appeared to be the latter. The committee was clearly probing for admissions not condolences. But they didn’t never came (or at least, not in the bit I watched).

And we can all play the game (it’s not just a politician’s disease). So here’s a thought. Why don’t we reserve the word for expressions of sympathy only? Why not come clean with the simple acknowledgements of fact? Not “I’m sorry”; but “I was/am in the wrong”. It doesn’t trip off the tongue so easily.

But then of course that is precisely the point. How rarely do we put our hands up to admit the truth? Because the reality is that far from being hard to say, ‘sorry’ has become the easiest word.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Kip' Chelashaw

    Thanks for a good post – challenging and insightful. Can remember quite a few times of saying “I am sorry” but struggling to recall the last time I said “I was/am in the wrong” and the associated “please forgive me” Kyrie Eleison.


  2. John

    Is it not possible to use the word in two different ways depending on the context?

    The one would be an obvious non-apology – as in “I’m sorry you feel non-plussed by my use of the word “sorry” in contexts you wouldn’t use it in. You poor thing.”

    But accompanied with words such as “that was wrong, please forgive me.” a sorry can retain its original force just as well…

    1. quaesitor

      of course it is possible, John – my point though is that most people don’t consciously distinguish between the two senses – and therein lies the problem

      1. John

        Yes, I’m just not sure whether that problem should be solved by trying to eliminate the usage of “sorry” in the first non-apology sense…

        An alternative solution in my mind would be to repeatedly stress the fact that true apologies involve repentance rather than only sympathy…

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