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…