How to Say I’m Sorry

Once, I told a joke in bad taste. the words just fell out of my mouth, and they were true, but they made people feel bad, and feel awkward. I hadn’t said anything which wasn’t accurate, but it wasn’t funny, either. Invariably, someone said “You should apologize.” And I thought about that. I didn’t really regret telling the joke, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to get into the habit of apologizing for telling the truth. Moreover, if people had laughed, there would have been no need for an apology.

Now, sorry is a rather popular word, especially among Canadians if the stereotype is to be believed. The sentiment of apology runs rampant, from people who are required to issue public apologies, to the casual apologies we give to people we bump into on the bus. But sometimes it seems that this word does not mean what we think it means. The words “I’m sorry” sometimes appear to mean “Let’s stop talking about this” or “Be quiet, please.” They can serve as a kind of conversational shortcut to get away from uncomfortable topics, “I said I was sorry, what more do you want?”, a sort of passive-aggressive version of storming out of the room.

I could ask what “I’m sorry” really means, but words can mean lots of things, phrases occupying different idioms in varying contexts and cultures. A better question is what should it mean? If we were to accurately ascertain what sort of sentiment is desirable in that phrase, could we then abide by it?

Apology seems to be best if based on regret for an action rather than a consequence. “I’m sorry you didn’t laugh” is different from “I’m sorry I did this thing.” It also appears reasonable that one ought not to apologize for things for which one isn’t responsible. “I’m sorry your dog died” seems like it would be better expressed as an offering of condolences, and sounds suspiciously like you just ran over their dog. So apologies ought to be about taking responsibility. In taking responsibility by acknowledging regret for an action, one makes a commitment not to repeat the same action in similar circumstances. One of the things which classifies a relationship as abusive is abuse followed by apology, followed by more abuse. If the commitment isn’t made, then responsibility was never taken, and “I’m sorry” just meant “Stop crying”.

Why is any of this relevant? We apologize a lot. Count how many times in a week you say you’re sorry, and how many times you really mean it, because you know when you do, even if no one else does. Wonder about how often other people do. Honest apology is the start of confrontation which can lead to resolution, while dishonest apology merely puts off the inevitable and fosters resentment. Which would you prefer?

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