I love English. We have a variety of useful words for every occasion. We can speak clearly and briefly without losing detail. Alas, not everyone uses the language as carefully as we might wish. Today, I want to talk about an overused word: “sorry.”
True sorrow and repentance are powerful emotions, but we weaken their power when we confuse them with automatic politeness. I want to speak for the word “sorry” and the tremendous power it can have when used properly. Here are Lucas’ rules for when to say “sorry.”
A. Say, “I’m sorry” to express sorrow over events when you have no control over them.
“I was so sorry to hear about the earthquake. It must have been terrifying.”
The word sorrow conveys great and distressing sadness. Sadly, we rarely use it when speaking of ourselves, but we retain this word, “sorry” when speaking of sadness at the misfortune of a neighbor. Honesty requires that we reserve this use for times when
- Someone else has suffered
- We enter into their sorrow with them
- We had no control over the events in question.
I’m sorry can mean, “I feel your sorrow with you.” Importantly, we must be careful not to minimize: “I’m sorry about X; at least Y.” Nor to blame: “I’m sorry you chose to X.” Nor to compare: “I’m sorry about X; something Xish happened to me…” I don’t doubt that there are times to minimize, blame, and compare. I simply feel that those actions do not warrant the use of the word, “sorry.”
Sorrow, as an emotion, blocks out everything else excepting faith, hope, and love. Thus, it is often useful to say, “I’m so sorry and am here with you” (faith), “I’m so sorry; we’ll make it through, somehow” (hope), and “I love you and am so sorry this happened to you” (love). Take careful note that the hope version must be a common, non-specific hope. Otherwise it swiftly turns into judgment and problem-solving. All other additives are simply incompatible with actual sorrow.
B. Say, “I’m sorry” to express regret over something you did when you have rethought the action, would now choose differently, and are willing to make amends.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I know how worried you were. Let me give you my cell number, so you can reach me if you don’t hear.”
We can be genuinely sorrowful about our own past actions, but in this case, sorrow must come with true repentance. I’m sorry I did it. I take responsibility for doing it and for dealing with the consequences.
We cannot feel real sorrow over actions that we would not change. We may feel sorrow over the situation we were in, but that is another sort of emotion – as much about feeling sorry for ourselves as for the other person. “I’m sorry” is not helpful in this situation, as it is, in effect, adding salt to a wound – complaining about how unfortunate we are to have had to hurt them.
No doubt the situation will occur. No one with power and responsibility can avoid making decisions that others find distressing. I accept that. I ask only that you not compound the slight by complaining about it.
True repentance is powerful. You have thought about your actions and so become a different person. You have paid attention and learned something from the consequences. Above all, repentance shows you care about your relationship with someone else. “I’m sorry,” can be the greatest gift you can give to someone you have wronged – but it must be sincere.
In rare cases, we revert to sorrow A. If I were a banker who had exhausted all avenues at my disposal, I might say “I’m sorry we cannot give you a loan.” That is “I’m sorry that the policies are set up in such a way that we cannot give you a loan. I think you should get one, but I cannot figure out how to…and I tried…repeatedly. I’ll be thinking about how to change the policies.” Just know that it is case A and involves events beyond your control.
Don’t be a “sorry, but.” There is never – ever – in any situation – a reason to use these two words together. “But” implies a reservation. You can either be unreservedly sorry (A) and it is out of your hands or unreservedly sorry (B) and attempting to fix the problem. Other emotions are not sorrow. “Sorry, but” most often hides an excuse for why one is not actually repentant or sorrowful. Please, don’t do
“I’m sorry if,” is also problematic. You might have done something bad but haven’t bothered to find out. Take the time and turn it into a “I’m sorry that.” Otherwise, it’s not the right time for the word.
C. Say, “Sorry” when genuinely feeling bad about very small social interactions.
I have enough British friends to add a third category. The phrase “excuse me” is considered terribly rude in some parts of the world, and the phrase “sorry” (no I’m) takes its place. British folk, in my experience, use sorry as a place holder for,
“Alas, we have an unscheduled social interaction. It requires me to enter your personal space. Compelled by circumstance, I may have to touch you or move your belongings. It grieves me greatly, but I will not intrude upon your person more than necessary with explanations. Let us contrive to ignore one another as much as possible, while muddling through.”
While not actual sorrow, it is useful.
It is useful because it is brief. Added words destroy that usefulness. Thus, it will not work if you anticipate actual conversation.
I will not apologize for potentially offending you. I will, however, ask you to share a better view of the word and its uses. I look forward to being sorry (B); it gives me a chance to improve myself and welcome help with that.
Thank you for listening.