‘Sorry’. It’s a five-letter word that has a multitude of meanings. But whether we realise it or not, it’s one of the most overused and misused words in our vocabulary. It even has a name: the sorry-reflex, also known as the “I’m sorry syndrome”.
If you think about it, how many times do you hear yourself, let alone other people, say ‘sorry’ on a daily basis? It could be something as simple as “Sorry, I don’t know,” or “Sorry, what’s the time?”
And what about the number of blog posts that start with “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.”
At the same time, there are some who find it difficult to express ‘sorry’ in a meaningful way when it’s genuinely required.
It seems ‘sorry’ has lost its true meaning. Most of all, it’s creating mixed messages.
Here are seven ways to say ‘sorry’ with more authenticity and clarity.
1. The compassionate and empathetic ‘sorry’
There are times when saying ‘sorry’ is used to express compassion or empathy for another’s misfortune.
For instance: “I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your aunt.”
“I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well.”
Or the often used: “I’m sorry to hear that.”
While compassion and empathy are wonderful human traits, and these phrases are well-intentioned, are you providing the love and support the recipient really needs?
That said, the recipient is usually dealing with a lot. They feel overwhelmed and don’t necessarily know what they need.
My point is, generally those who express it like the above examples do so because they don’t know what else to say. They don’t want to create additional sadness or upset those who are experiencing major challenges.
Instead of actually saying the words “I’m sorry”, my preference in these situations is to say something that offers — in the simplest way possible — an authentic yet additional level of comfort and support.
For instance: “I am here for you.”
“May you have a wonderful and healthy recovery. I can’t wait to see you.”
Depending on the circumstances and how well you know the person, it could be:
“I will call you this week to see how you are.” (In this instance, it helps reinforce that your support is genuine and practical, not just words.)
And if I’m seeing them face-to-face, I like to give them a long, present, heart-to-heart hug — should they be open to receiving it — not back pats. Long hugs speak volumes.
If you are at a loss for words, say so.
For example: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care.”
You’re being honest. Most of all, you’re being human.
2. The excuse me ‘sorry’
Of course, ‘sorry’ has come to mean that you didn’t hear or understand what another person said.
In this context, it’s partly out of habit and partly because it’s become convenient to say one word.
Although it’s a tad longer to articulate, instead of saying ‘sorry’, you can ask in a way that will actually help clarify what you need.
For example: “Excuse me, can you repeat that.”
Or “Can you please explain what you said.”
And if you happen to be in the habit of saying ‘sorry’ when interrupting someone, be it an important update or message, simply say: “Excuse me,” followed by their name (to personally acknowledge them) and your message.
Even breaking through a line or a queue, how many say “Sorry, can I cut through?” Isn’t it better to stop, smile and ask the other person: “Excuse me, may I go through here?” followed by “thank you”.
All of these options are clear, simple and respectful. What’s more, it lessens any guilt that may be associated with your use of ‘sorry’ in these instances.
3. The apologetic ‘sorry’
Saying “I’m sorry” can also mean offering an apology, especially when you did something that impacted another, whether you meant to or not.
The thing is, a lot of people only say “I’m sorry.” Nothing more, nothing less.
Expressed like this, it devalues an apology. It becomes tokenistic.
Of course, if you’ve accidently or intentionally hurt or offended someone, it warrants an apology, and a genuine one at that. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions.
For example: “I sincerely apologise, I didn’t mean to knock your vase from the table and break it. I know how much it means to you.”
Of course, saying “I’m genuinely sorry, I didn’t mean to knock and break your favourite vase, etc.,” is quite acceptable in this context, too.
And if they ask how it happened, explain.
Depending on the situation, take it a step further, offering a possible solution:
“I will clean it up, and do my best to have your vase repaired or replaced.”
At the same time, don’t expect forgiveness in return. You can’t be responsible for another’s response or feelings.
A genuine apology is about taking ownership of what you have done without any excuses. At the same time, it can be a challenge because not only are we are admitting what we have done, we are vulnerable.
To me, the best kind of apology is when actions and words are combined. Best of all, an honest-to-goodness apology can be powerful for the giver and the recipient.
4. The flip side to the apologetic ‘sorry’
On the flip side, ‘sorry’ is often used when we actually have nothing to apologise for.
For instance, how often do you apologise to someone when they bumped into you?
Do you say ‘sorry’ immediately after you sneezed?
I find that women in particular feel embarrassed about sneezing, and frequently apologise for it. Let’s face it, a sneeze is a natural, sudden and involuntary occurrence. It’s only if you accidently sneezed on someone that an apology is needed.
If you do use ‘sorry’ frequently, and not in a sincere and apologetic way, you may need to consider why and when you say it. On the one hand, it could be an unhealthy habit. On the other, it could be a reflection of low self-esteem and self-worth.
With that in mind, we don’t just say ‘sorry’ verbally, we also express it in written communication. If saying ‘sorry’ too often has become a habit, there’s an app to help keep tabs on how often you say ‘sorry’ in emails.
You’d be surprised how frequently it’s used.
5. The remorseful ‘sorry’
Closely linked to the apologetic ‘sorry’, maybe you feel remorse because you did something with the best of intentions but things didn’t turn out so well.
For instance: “I’m sorry, I should have done this or that. Why was I so stupid?”
Instead of being hard on yourself, try: “Now this has happened, I will do my best to learn from it and rectify the situation.”
There are many ways of turning things around. It’s about having the awareness.
6. The I can’t help you ‘sorry’
“Sorry, that’s not my department,” is not useful to anybody.
While it might not be your area of specialisation, people appreciate being helped any way they can. They like to be acknowledged and listened to, not brushed off. Nor do they like to be made to feel like they have to say ‘sorry’ because they have interrupted someone who is ‘too busy’.
Instead, clarify what they need, and then explain, in an amicable manner, that you will do the best you can to help them. Alternatively, let them know you will find, or connect them with, the best person to assist them.
7. The softening and mixed message ‘sorry’
While we might think that ‘sorry’ is used to soften or diffuse the impact of what we’re saying, it can also be contradictory.
“Sorry, but I disagree.”
“Sorry, but I can’t come.”
We are all entitled to express our opinion; we don’t need to apologise for not agreeing, or for already having something else organised.
For the above instances, try:
“I appreciate your input, I don’t agree for these reasons…”
“Thank you for the invite. I already have something else on then. Let’s catch up after the event.”
Interestingly, when I mentioned that I was writing on the subject and overuse of ‘sorry’, one response was: “Sorry, but I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
The whole point of this is to use the word ‘sorry’ wisely. Because when you stop over-apologising or using it as a filler, you start to empower yourself. Even better, you get back to the true nature of what the word means.
When and how often do you say sorry?
Post & Images by Kristin Lee
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