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When Sorry Is Not An Apology

When you hear someone say “I’m sorry” do you automatically think that they are apologizing for having done something wrong? Does the meaning of what they said depend on the context of the situation? When I’ve done something wrong I do say I’m sorry, but I also say that when I haven’t done anything wrong at all. 

Take for instance the following scenario. I am out with a friend who tells me that she has had a terrible day. It started when her alarm didn’t go off and she woke up late. She had to rush to get ready for work, and had to speed in order to make it to the office on time. She had a critical meeting with a client mid morning that she totally flubbed and as a result, her company lost a major deal. Her boss ended up yelling at her for this loss and blaming her. He ended up giving her grunt work assignments for the rest of the month. When she got home she burned dinner and ended up having to call for pizza for her family. 
Upon hearing this I responded, “I’m so sorry.” My friend looked at me and said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s not your fault.” That’s right. It’s not my fault and I wasn’t apologizing. I was expressing my empathy for my friend’s situation. 
What confuses me about this is the prevalence of it. It seems like with the passing of time more and more people confuse a simple empathetic expression as a taking on of personal responsibility. I’ve even heard it from my mother- her telling me to stop apologizing for everything. 
I would say that this is a cultural thing, but it happens to more than just me and with friends who live all over. I’ve had discussions with friends who say this same thing happens to them with people confusing their empathy for an apology. 
Are we as a society losing our ability to feel empathy for others? In some ways I think so, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I really don’t know what is at play here. I had someone tell me once that instead of saying I’m sorry I should say I feel bad for you. I think that takes on a patronizing tone. I’d much rather someone tell me they are sorry for what I’m going through than to tell me they feel bad for me. So, should I just say “I feel sorry for what you are going through” instead of “I’m sorry”? Maybe. But that seems overly formal in some situations. 
Perhaps I’m overthinking this completely, but I don’t think so. I just think that we all, myself included, should react to what someone actually says and not just a knee jerk reaction to what we hear. Have an actual conversation instead of reacting to statements. It’s more difficult that way, but immensely more rewarding. 

4 thoughts on “When Sorry Is Not An Apology”

  1. We are a society that is the middle of change and this is affecting our ability to converse/communicate. We have focused a lot on the quick and immediate (and the easy). Our answers/comments become utilitarian partly because of the political climate we now are in (ignoring the art of debate for the sake of ‘winning’), partly because of deemphasizing the importance of patience for instant satisfaction, partly because of not taking in the whole picture and focusing only on the immediate situation and partly because of generations of fixating on ‘being right’ instead of ‘being helpful.’ Add to this, we are also in the middle of world wide, cultural integration. Therefore we are becoming more aware of the importance of words, feelings and actions, learning-in the process-to be not so critical of others or ourselves. Good topic, keep them coming.

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