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.