‘Oops. I’m sorry.’ But are you always really sorry?



We all make mistakes. At our advanced ages, we—and most others—could stretch our “sorry” for “oops, I didn’t mean that” clear across the country and back, maybe several times.

However, we’re not talking only about the many ways we use the simple phrase “I’m sorry” in the cases when we’re sincere and apologetic, a mea culpa for a specific act.

Examples: We may have hurt someone’s feelings because we were in a bad mood and screamed at our kids, spouse, partner, friend, mail carrier, trash collector or store clerk for no valid reason. Or, we may have asked a waiter to describe how a pasta is prepared multiple times because we were too busy texting.

“Oops. I’m Sorry”

In another case, we may have accidentally kicked someone’s foot under the table, made a factual error in a blog post unwittingly, or expressed our sympathy when a friend lost a loved one and said, “I’m so sorry” but then made a faux pas by adding, “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s a big oops since you never know how that person, or anyone feels unless they share. The times when we use the phrase correctly and incorrectly goes on interminably.

However, the real focus of this post is to address the times when we say, “I’m sorry” and it’s not necessary. Maybe, we’re asking someone something or challenging an opinion. It’s almost become a social, linguistic convention to do so. We preface our comment with, “Sorry, but I don’t understand that,” or “Sorry, I think this is a better explanation.” We are trying to make a point and maybe disagree but are reluctant to be direct and forthright. We take the timid approach and apologize for our beliefs in advance to soften the metaphorical sword coming down.

Is this tactic passive-aggressive? And we are truly sorry for diagnosing human behavior when we don’t have a medical or therapist’s degree. We’re writers! And yes, we’ll be honest here. We’re not really sorry at all! What all this backpedaling does is diminish our beliefs and even our intelligence.

The non-apologetic “sorry”

Then there is the non-apologetic “sorry” that can be unclear, defensive and miss the point such as, “Sorry if I kicked your foot, but it got in the way,” which is bad or worse, but we’ll save that discussion for a future post. In this instance, we or others use the term, along with the all-important connector “but” because we are not assertive enough at times to own our convictions.

Sometimes when we say, “Sorry but…” it’s a way to back off. Adding the “but” softens what we want to say. “I’m so sorry but… It’s a wimpy attempt at being a good person and not making waves. It gets back to the fact that we’re still young enough to remember we were taught by our mothers to be polite, agreeable and not become what may be construed as confrontational, or at least not to say anything that hints at arguing out loud.

According to an op-ed in the New York Times newspaper by author Sloane Crosby titled “When an Apology is Anything But” (June 22, 2015), you don’t need these words to help make your point in these cases. If you feel yourself shrinking every time you say the words, stop saying “sorry.”  It’s a bad habit, which more women than men follow.

How to break the habit? Speak up. Practice can make perfect. When you want to disagree with your friend’s review of a movie, for instance, try simply saying so. Not first, “I’m sorry” but instead spit it out straight: “I’d like to offer a different view. I thought….” You don’t even have to smile to camouflage what you feel or scowl angrily, either. Try it and check your expression by looking in the mirror. “I think it really wasn’t that good a performance because…. But I hear what you’re saying.” Do it again with variations.

Note how you feel afterward

Do you feel you grew at least one inch? As long as we’re Not Dead Yet (the title of our latest book) we suggest using “I’m sorry” judiciously; save it for important times when it’s authentic. “I’m sorry I interrupted you,” which Margaret and Barbara banter back and forth since they have that bad habit. Or, “I’m sorry I forgot your birthday” since nobody likes to be forgotten, or “I’m really sorry your sister died.” The recipient of those words is likely to appreciate your kindness and maybe say back, “I know you are. Thanks so much.”

Margaret (Meg) Crane lived most of her life in St. Louis, was associate editor of the Jewish Light in the early 70s and from 2001-2012, was senior writer for Jewish Federation. Two years ago, she moved to New York City to be closer to family living there. Barbara Ballinger, originally from New York, lived in St. Louis for 23 years and worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She now lives in upstate New York. Follow their blog here.