I’m sorry

So. In discussion with the Rake, we hit on something I thought was really really interesting (and yes, conversation ended with ‘you know I’m going to blog about this, right?’).

What do you mean when you say ‘I’m sorry’? ‘I recognise that I’ve done something wrong’, ‘I’m sad that I hurt you’, ‘that won’t happen again’? It’s a tiny phrase, but I suspect everyone hangs different unspoken additional meanings on it.

We’d had one of those niggling miscommunications, and because I felt that I’d made a mistake, I said ‘I’m sorry’. He got frustrated, and asked me not to say sorry. This confused me – so we talked about what I meant by it, and what he heard.

What I meant by it was ‘I think I did something wrong, even though it was minor, so I want to show you that I recognise that, and that I am sad if it hurt your feelings at all.’ But the other thing I mean by ‘I’m sorry’ – and I only really managed to put words to this when we started talking about it – is that I use it as a bridge; if I’ve had a disagreement with someone, and I feel like we both were at ‘fault’ (if any applies), but that I feel like it’s over and done, I use ‘I’m sorry’ as a way of also saying ‘I want us to be friends again, can we call this finished and reconnect?’

What had never occurred to me is the way that can actually come across as controlling. Instead of ‘can we be friends?’ it can also serve a conversational purpose of shutting down discussion – ‘I feel like we’ve talked about this enough, so I am unilaterally deciding to finish this discussion. I have shifted my role and am now being contrite and in the wrong, so now that I’ve said sorry you can’t keep criticising me.’ By reaching out and apologising, I can inadvertently actually be saying ‘I’m not listening to you any more, stop talking.’

I honestly think this is absolutely fascinating – and I’m also genuinely surprised that in all this time we’ve never spotted the way he and I mean completely different things by ‘I’m sorry’. Neither of us are wrong or right – I will continue to apologise if I think I’m in the wrong, because anything else is just weird, but I intend to try and time it much, much better.

What do you mean when you say ‘I’m sorry’?


A wise friend pointed out that in this way, ‘I’m sorry’ is also a bit like ‘I love you’; both phrases serve as placeholders for a lot of other meanings, and not always the same ones on either side of the conversational crevasse.

This – plus a lot of other conversations in my life – are leading me unavoidably towards writing a proper philosophy post about Wittgenstein’s arguments on private language. Poor unloved Rousseau, I keep ditching him for other topics…


10 responses to “I’m sorry

  1. I have a friend who used to have a violent partner. She learned to use ‘I’m sorry’ as a way of deflecting his angry, provocative remarks. Had she responded with ‘That’s not true; I didn’t do/say that’ etc., he would have had the excuse he needed to come back with more angry words and, inevitably, physical violence. The mantra ‘I’m sorry; you’re right; it’s my fault’ was her defensive weapon. He couldn’t get past it.

  2. When I seriously say ‘I’m sorry’, it means that I acknowledge that I have got something wrong, or that I have done something wrong. This might even be after a life-time of ‘getting it wrong’, having thought I’d got it right. In such a case, I wouldn’t expect forgiveness but obviously it would be nice. (I say it to my parents in my head.)

    If ‘I’m sorry’ occurs after an argument, I would probably be hoping the other person would say ‘I’m sorry’ too. It can work as a balm on the wounds and can signal forgiveness and a move towards a less heated discussion, or an intention to change.

    In every day situations, I’m inclined to say ‘sorry’ if someone bumps into me or treads on my foot and I think this is quite common ‘polite’ behaviour; It means nothing..

    On the other hand, ‘I’m sorry?’ can be a sarcastic response to an outrageous remark to be followed by ‘I’m sorry? Did you say that David Cameron is the finest PM we ever had?’ In this case, ‘I’m sorry’ is a pretence that I must have misheard the original statement.

    If I am told ‘I’m sorry’ by someone whom I know to be insincere, then it is insulting to my intelligence and will make me angry.

    ‘I’m sorry you were upset’ is not an apology at all, but a shifting of blame onto the offended party.

    I’m sorry; have I gone on too long?

  3. I say “I’m sorry” to express sorrow. No more, no less.

    It *might be* because I am accepting blame, but that’s context dependent and I will usually clarify by saying “I’m sorry I did this thing which hurt you, it also hurt me and it wasn’t okay”. I can also be sorry when I am completely in the right, though, and I can (and do) say “I’m sorry that we’re fighting” irrespective of who is at fault if it’s true that the fight is making me unhappy!

    This does also mean I’m one of those people who will say “I’m sorry” when something bad happens to you that was *nothing to do with me* (e.g. a bereavement) which I know irritates some people. But honestly, for me it’s just an expression of empathy and compassion in itself.

    Awesomely interesting post, Polly. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. This really is fascinating and rang true with me. My partner only very rarely says sorry, and when he does it means a lot to me. By comparison, I say “I’m sorry” rather a lot, and for a variety of reasons. Often, his reaction is one of annoyance and he tells me that it doesn’t mean anything and he’s still pissed off.

    The power exchange element to it is interesting to me as having been submissive in this relationship in the past (and not wanting to go back to that state, lovely though it was), when I say “I’m sorry”, I instantly feel as though I’m placing myself in the palm of his hand. It is comforting only if he accepts the apology, but if he doesn’t I feel like I’ve been wronged somehow, or tricked into placing myself in his power, when in actual fact, the fault lies with me. It’s a passive-aggressive control tactic which has backfired.

    I do think the willingness to apologise is for the most part, a positive thing. It aids communication and, as you wrote, builds bridges. But only really when there is no subtext, no agenda and no underlying plea for a return apology.

  5. I’m a reflexive user of “I’m sorry”, I think I’ve used it about ten times today already! My other half is similarly inclined so we can have entire conversations which consist of “I’m sorry” – it’s not a problem because we have the same (complete lack of) meaning to the phrase. Proper apologies may use “I’m sorry” but will be surrounded by a lot more context.

    But I have come across the use of “I’m sorry… but” in online arguments with very unpleasant people. It’s like people who do illegal and dangerous things on the road but think it’s ok because they put their hazard lights on. It’s often used in the context of “I’m sorry I offended you” (and variants) – if they ‘apologise’ for their abuse of power and privilege then they can keep right on doing it.

    When I say “I’m sorry” in the context of bereavement it’s in the sense of sorrow, and that’s how I’ve always understood it. It really means “I sorrow” to me then I say to someone who has suffered a loss. A quick check of the OED shows this is the original meaning of the phrase, and I think it’s a pity that this has been lost and people now think it’s an apology in that context. Because that’s what you really want to say – “I empathise/share in your sorrow”. We’ve lost that meaning and not gained a replacement; you’re left saying “I’m sorry for your loss” and hoping that it’s not misinterpreted.

  6. I just had an interesting conversation with my dad; he’s director of a charity who do relationship courses for convicts who are being released from prison and their families and partners. He designed a two day workshop on resolving conflict and forgiveness. He said that it is important to not only say “I’m sorry”, but to say “Will you forgive me?”. The question is hard to ask if you don’t genuinely believe you’re in the wrong, but if you do ask plainly for forgiveness, you’re allowing the wronged person to make a decision. They use a red, amber, green example to illustrate the three possible responses: Red is “I don’t forgive you and I don’t accept your apology”, green is “I forgive you, let’s draw a line under it and move on”, amber is “I want to forgive you, but I need time to process this and we need to work things out together”. He also said that amber is the most common answer and usually the best, as it shows honesty and willingness. Green can often be a desire to reconnect without dealing with the issue and effectively sweeping it under the carpet, only for it to resurface and trip you up further down the line.

    I was really surprised at his insight. He’s pretty cool, my dad. I think, as Amanda wrote above, that it’s important to clarify exactly what you are sorry for and what you mean when you say “I’m sorry”.

    Devil’s Avocado talked about shifting blame by saying “I’m sorry you were upset”. I don’t think this is always a bad thing. It’s not really an apology, but more an expression of sorrow and empathy for the other person. Sometimes it can be a way of ensuring you don’t take the blame for someone else’s reaction to something that wasn’t wrong. I can think of many times when my partner and I were exploring polyamory, when I saw other people, he was upset, but we’d agreed that it was ok, so while I felt sad that he was hurt, I didn’t feel I should accept blame, as it was something we’d agreed upon. I often said “I’m sorry that you feel bad”. I felt that it was the most positive way of ensuring that we were both taking responsibility for our own feelings.

  7. I only say it when the thought makes me really happy, and it means, “I now understand what I am doing that makes us unhappy, and I’m looking forward to changing that.”

    • ‘I only say it when the thought makes me really happy’ – that’s a fascinating way of putting it! Seems very healthy. I suspect many of my sorries come from a place of sadness and genuine contrition – but actually, those negative emotions can make it hard to perceive a situation accurately (see today’s post on jealousy!) so sorries that come from a place of happiness are probably far more productive.

  8. I’ve been researching a lot on underlining meanings behind the spoken word, especially when fighting.
    I came across an awesome site called getyourangriesout. Its a site that is focused on anger management in your relationship, family and work life. There is one page that goes over all the types of bad behavior traits someone may have.
    While going through this page I managed to find out a lot about myself and how I was being manipulative in my own way.
    When I would say I’m sorry, as sincer as I was, I would end up turning the arguement around and the issue at hand would not be resolved. As much as I thought I was doing the right thing by apologizing and admitting fault, it really wasnt helping in the long run.
    I really enjoyed your post. It clarifies a lot of my research

  9. Pingback: Poly Means Many: Needs, wants, and self-knowledge « An Open Book

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