Some Better Ways to Say “I’m Sorry”

Have you ever noticed the different meanings we have for the phrase “I’m sorry”? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because I’ve noticed how often some folks say it when they aren’t really apologizing. I’m not talking about those times when someone gives a false apology without actually changing their behavior. I mean those times when we say “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sorry that this has happened.” It seems to me that when we use one phrase to mean a bunch of different things, it often makes it harder to communicate clearly.

Apologies are one of the most important tools we have to keep things happy and thriving. All relationships will have times of misattunement, mistakes, or moments of thoughtlessness, so being able to reconcile things and come back together is important. Otherwise, you create resentment and distance, which can drive a wedge between people. When we use unclear language, it becomes harder to rebuild those connections. Ambiguity does not help us reconnect.

There are certainly plenty of different approaches and models. One that I have found helpful comes from the book Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Ellison. I also got a lot out of The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships, although I could have done without Chapman’s insistence on heterosexual, monogamous marriage within a Christian context. If you don’t mind filtering that out, there’s some good wisdom there.

But what about those times when it isn’t a mistake? Why do so many people say “I’m sorry”? There’s a difference, for example, between being late for an appointment because you were late out the door and being late when, despite everything you could reasonably do, public transit or traffic was uncooperative. It seems to me that when we apologize for things that are beyond our control, we take responsibility for something that we really have no power over. And I’ve always believed that power and responsibility need to balance (thanks to years of Spider Man comics).

In those situations, I find it’s much more empowering to say “I regret.” There’s a distinction we can make between “I’m sorry that I left the house late” and “I regret that traffic made me miss our dinner reservation.” In the first statement, I’m acknowledging my responsibility for the consequences. In the second, I’m expressing my wish that things had been otherwise without taking responsibility for whatever was beyond my control. Of course, if I didn’t think to check the traffic report, then I could apologize for that- it’s really a question of due diligence, rather than being perfect.

There’s also a third kind of situation in which people often say “I’m sorry.” Those are the times that we say things like “I’m sorry you lost your job.” Assuming that I’m not actually responsible, either directly or indirectly, for your job loss, saying that I’m sorry seems really disconnected to me. But it wasn’t until I was chatting with a friend about this that I had the language to make the distinction between these different situations. She and her wife use the phrase “I lament that…” As in, “I lament that your boss was a jerk today.” Or “I lament that you got the flu while on vacation.”

It’s a great way to express the emotion and offer support without sounding like you had anything to do with creating the situation. Lamenting that something unpleasant has happened makes it clear that you’re not directly involved. This gives us language for these three types of situations:

I apologize for something that I was a direct cause of, especially if I could have been expected to know what would happen or if I break an agreement.

I regret something that I was indirectly part of. I can acknowledge how I contributed to what happened without taking responsibility for what I couldn’t change.

I lament that something I wasn’t part of has taken place. I empathize with you, while also recognizing that I did not contribute to your circumstances.

Of course, it’s important to use these with good faith. Telling someone that you regret something that you really are responsible for isn’t good communication and won’t actually help. At the same time, speaking as if we have responsibility for something that we don’t have control over weakens our communication and ultimately disempowers us. There’s more strength to be found in acknowledging our limits than in pretending that they aren’t there.

Granted, many situations will straddle these categories- I’m not suggesting that the differences are always easy to see. But the more I’ve used these different phrases, the more smoothly things go when I am actually apologizing. My partner knows that I’m not saying “I’m sorry” frivolously or reflexively. In those moments, it’s clear that I’m taking full responsibility for whatever mistake I made and that I’ll take steps to make amends. That strengthens the foundation of our relationship much more than it did when I used to say “I’m sorry” to cover those other kinds of situations.

As always, your mileage may vary. If these phrases don’t work for you, try some others.  But whatever you decide to do, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. If you have other ways of making this work, or if you use different language for it, please comment below.

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11 Responses so far.

  1. Ron Zucker says:

    I’ve taken to using, “I’m filled with sorrow” for the last of these. I’m sorry that I behaved poorly, and will try to change it. I’m filled with sorrow that you’ve had a tragedy I couldn’t change.

  2. Charlie says:

    I think that’s the idea behind “I lament,” which might be a little more flexible. Sometimes, I’m not filled with sorrow- it might just be a little bit. But whatever works, right? 🙂

  3. Erin says:

    i don’t mind people saying they’re sorry for traffic or a death in my family, like ron’s comment. i’m bothered much more about people reflexively saying they’re sorry for every little thing. for example, if you are actually frustrated that traffic was bad or you do feel sorrow that i’m sad about something you have no part in, then it’s fine to say you’re sorry. but if you waltz in late and don’t really care and blame it on traffic and toss off a “sorry… traffic ya know?” and don’t acknowledge that i’ve been waiting… that’s something different.

    i also sort of feel that if i tell my partner i’m sorry he had a bad day at work and he says, “why are you sorry? it wasn’t your fault. you didn’t make that woman yell at me on the phone.” then i sort of feel like he’s intentionally hearing me wrong. it’s such a commonly used construction that to misunderstand what someone means by it is … hard to believe for me.

    unrealatedly, when i saw your title i was thinking about how my parents used to apologize for minor infractions. they’d say, “full apology; right words.” 🙂 obviously it wouldn’t work if your partner/friend had really gotten their feelings hurt, but it gets the point across and give you something to laugh at. 🙂

  4. Charlie says:

    @Erin- I think that you’ve described exactly why I like using different words. If your partner isn’t intentionally mishearing you, perhaps you each just have different definitions for the word, which can be a source of miscommunication. Although if he’s intentionally mishearing you, that’s a different issue.

    As far as the reflexive apologies go, a lot of folks do that. In fact, I used to. And without wanting to suggest what might be going on for you around that, for me, it was all about my shame reactions. Apologizing a lot was my way of trying to keep the other person from blaming me, but in the end, it was ultimately more disempowering than anything they could have done.

    If that resonates for you, check out Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me. It’s amazing and has lots of insights, with a focus on women’s experiences.

  5. Anselm says:

    I like to make distinctions between “I’m sorry” (I feel sorrow) and “I apologize” (I acknowledge that I did something wrong). I apologize is something that can be said with a straight face, even when I’m not sorry- I apologize for outing you as a slacker to the boss. I’m sorry means just that- I feel regret, and may or may not take blame for the situation.

    But that’s just me. Great article! 🙂

  6. Erin says:

    why, i couldn’t read that charlie! what would people think!! 😉

    thanks for the recommendation, i’ll certainly check it out.

  7. Charlie says:

    You might have seen her TEDx talk. If not, give it a watch. It’s fantastic.

  8. I like these distinction; thank you!

  9. Jen Davidson says:

    I have noticed myself saying, “I’m sorry?” when I can’t hear what someone is saying. This is a bad habit and one I’d like to change, because that’s not actually what I mean. I’m going to replace that phrase with something like, “Come again?” or “Please repeat?” instead.

    Mindful speech is important. Thanks for encouraging it!

  10. Kimberly Cross says:

    What an interesting thought. It’s probably significant that “sorry” covers such a broad spectrum: It seems like we’d have more nuanced terms for it already in common parlance if we took apologies more seriously. (Just like the fabled 200 Eskimo words for “snow.” Still, since that falsehood was generated by our own culture, it speaks to measuring how charged a subject is by the sheer number of words it generates – think of all the ways you can say “drunk.”) I love the idea of getting more specific with apologies.

    That said, “sorry” is a useful term that’s unlikely to go away. Having fallen victim to semantic erosion long ago, it probably makes sense to retire it from contexts where real responsibility is involved. I like the idea of using “apologize” to acknowledge direct cause, and love “regret” as a way of noticing that one is not to blame. I do find myself feeling smaller and smaller when I apologize for circumstances beyond my control. A friend of mine once laughed about being in such a funk that she found herself tempted to answer the phone with “Hi, this is Marty, and I’m sorry.”

    But while my inner drama queen is drawn to the voluptuous romanticism of “lament,” the word feels a bit overblown for daily use – ironic even, which is worse. Personally, I think it makes perfect sense to use “sorry” to express sorrow upon hearing of another’s misfortune. Saying “I’m sorry you had a bad day” is commonly understood as a contraction of “I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad day.” It’s an accepted social form which isn’t meant to be taken literally – in much the same way that “Good morning,” is considered a polite greeting, not a pronouncement. It seems to me that people who respond with “You had nothing to do with it” (or, for that matter, “What’s good about it?”) are being contrary because, well, they’re having a bad day. And yes, I find it irksome when I get that one thrown back at me. Maybe they deserved to have a bad day because they were crankypants.

    And while we’re on the subject, I’d also vote for keeping “sorry” in the verbal quiver for those times when you’re not exactly responsible or devastated, but feel compelled to murmur something noncommital, since – let’s be completely honest – we’re none of us on top of our game at all times and can’t always respond with the mental alacrity and sensitivity we aspire to. Which, come to think on it, is pretty much what social forms are there for. We’d be “sorry” to lose them.

    My two cents. No charge; worth every penny or your money back.

  11. eXXposed says:

    I find that I often used to use “I’m sorry” to mean “I empathize”, which is sort of like your “lament” but with perhaps more broad application. I don’t have it entirely down in conversation yet, it’s a bit more awkward than “I’m sorry” but at least I don’t get the odd “it’s not your fault” response one so often gets in those situations.

    Yes, of course it’s not my fault that you feel ill/had a crappy commute/miss your dog/nearly broke your foot, but I still wish to express that I feel for you and your unpleasant experience.

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