A meaningless apology: “I’m sorry”

An apology needs three parts — I’m sorry, it’s my fault , and it won’t happen again — but it only matters if the meaning is true.

The server at the counter apologized for the long wait, then for not receiving an order, and finally for the delivery trucks stuck in traffic. It happened with every customer she served. Every day she dragged herself to work and repeated the same phrases – “Sorry for the wrong order given”, “sorry the trucks didn’t deliver the croissants today”, “sorry the delay”. None of it was her fault. With each “sorry” she said, the smile plastered on her face slipped a little more. One day, she asked herself, why am I saying sorry? I never did anything wrong. I’m not sorry.  

The word “sorry” is in danger of losing it’s meaning. Ironically, this loss is due to an overuse which stems from actively avoiding responsibility through passive language. To say the word is misused is different saying it should never be used. The word “sorry” has a proper usage and meaning. It can function as an apology, a regret, an excuse, or an expression of empathy. The most important part of saying “sorry” is meaning it. However, it is now a habit for many Americans – “sorry” for living, “sorry” for the bad news, “sorry” this issue came up, or “sorry” for asking questions. What is meant by “sorry” in all these instances? The problem is that “sorry” is used for every expression regret or mistake rendering it meaningless. When looking up the definition of “sorry”, dictionary.com states “feeling distress, especially through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune”. This definition only covers a small portion of the use you see in everyday speech.

Commonly, people say “sorry” for things that they can’t control — weather, sickness, and general tragedy and despair. By vaguely apologizing in this manner, people lessen their relationship to the person whom they are apologizing to. Remember in lower school, when two students were forced to say “I’m sorry”, then the teacher asked the children “for what”. Sorry in isolation does not constitute an apology. Every apology has two parts. The admission that something went wrong, followed by the action taken that will mean it doesn’t happen again.

When people say “sorry”, it is abstractness of the shame and illustrates the vague passiveness of the word “sorry”. Saying “sorry” is merely a report of someone’s feelings. Instead, people should express their feelings of sorrow by saying “I apologize” because it is active. As Edwin L. Battistella said in her book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apologies, “the distinction between performing an apology by saying “I apologize” and reported a mental state by saying “I’m sorry” provides insight into another aspect of apologetic discourse — apologies sometimes combine the two expressions.” One must ask themselves what are they apologizing for? That is an important factor in learning the usage of apologetic words — regret, sorry, and apologize.

While it may appear to be rude not to say “sorry” about events a person isn’t truly sorry or didn’t cause, I urge everyone to stop for a moment a think about what occurred, what words should be used, and what course of action will be taken to prevent an event from happening again.