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The insufficiency of “I’m sorry”

“I’m sorry” is totally insufficient. I hate it.

But, before you start to think me a monster, let me qualify.

First, I am not saying I hate apologies. Far from it. I am a big fan of apologies. We all screw up from time to time and a sincere apology can go a long way toward making things right. Trust me: I know. We’ve all done and will do stupid things that hurt other people. Apologize. Say, “I’m sorry” and mean it. You can’t travel back to the moment of your transgression and stop it from happening, but you can acknowledge that you screwed up and take steps to correct. And, don’t forget, there are no "buts" in an apology.

Second, I am not saying that I don’t think we should sympathize with other people’s pain. The human is a communal animal and our societies and our lives are better when we try as best we can to understand what other members of our tribe are going through. Stress at work, family strife, feeling unsure about your life path, whatever it is the ability to read the emotions of others and to incorporate that understanding is key to successfully navigating life. Just think how much better things would be if the GOP had a tiny sliver of sympathy for anyone. Right? A lot better.

What I am trying to get at is that I think "I’m sorry" as a phrase to mean, "I see that you are suffering and acknowledge it and sincerely wish I could help in some way to ease that suffering" is not even close to good enough. There is too much opportunity to confuse it with the other meaning, "I have regret for the harm I caused you," particularly in a moment when emotions are heightened. You know, when you might say something like "I’m sorry".

How many times have you said "I’m sorry" to someone the former meaning, for them to say, "You have nothing to be sorry about. It’s not your fault"? And then you have to clarify with something like, "No no, what I meant was that I am sorry your teeth hurt still, not I’m sorry I made your teeth hurt because we both know I had nothing to do at all with the pain level of your teeth. However, I feel sympathy for the aches in your chompers." This is a strong signal that "I’m sorry" is not up the task we’ve set out for it.

You could try something like, "I feel you," but that could just as easily be confused with "I agree". Not good enough. It leaves us with the same lack of clarity "I’m sorry" does. Grandma died? "I feel you." Wrong.

How about "I am pained for you"? Too dramatic. Try listening to less Morrissey.

Maybe "Yeah, sure, ok, yeah, ok, uh-huh"? I’ve performed extensive testing with this option when a plus-one is telling me about some upset they experienced and it didn’t go so well. I should have just used "I’m sorry".

The French have l’esprit de l’escalier to describe that feeling you get when you leave an argument and suddenly have a whole armament of pithy retorts, too late to make use of. The Germans have schadenfreude which describes the malicious enjoyment we take in the misfortunes of others. The Danish have 2016’s hottest word hygge which the OED defines as "a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being; contentment from simple pleasures, such as warmth, food, friends, etc." Damn, that sounds pretty nice.

And we English speakers, what do we have? "I’m sorry".

Not good enough! It’s confusing! It’s imprecise! It’s wholly insufficient for the work it’s meant to do! And, I hate it. There has to be some better, clearer way to express the same sentiment as simply but without the risk of mistaking its meaning.

While we’re all stuck inside the house due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, I want you to think about what else could take the place of "I’m sorry" and get back to me by Monday. Leave good suggestions in the comments. I believe in you.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


  1. sebleier sebleier April 9, 2020

    l’esprit de l’escalier – A.K.A. pulling a George Constanza

    • Joe Dillingham Joe Dillingham Post author | April 10, 2020

      I’ve still never gotten onto the Seinfeld train.

  2. msabdala msabdala April 12, 2020

    Have you ever heard of the Fast Food Rule? I’ll explain and give my thoughts on the rule and how it relates to conveying human empathy, if you haven’t heard of it.

      • Mariana Mariana May 23, 2020

        Ok. So instead of saying “I’m sorry” I’m response to a person’s grievance or complaint or sad story, or even a little vent session, you repeat back what the person told you. Just like a fast food clerk, repeat back to the person what they are saying. And then validate the shittiness. “That’s gotta feel shitty, man”. And then you can even add on a layer of advice or consolation, if you have any. Nowhere do you mutter a disingenuous ‘I’m sorry’.
        I think this works well for kids (“You want to go outside and play, and you can’t because it’s raining. Ugh that sucks”), especially before telling them what you want (“We can’t go outside because it’s raining. We’ll read a book together. You and I can stop crying and read”).

      • Joe Dillingham Joe Dillingham Post author | May 23, 2020

        I like this. I think this is a great approach.

  3. msabdala msabdala May 24, 2020

    That part about the Fast Food Rule and kids is easier said than done, btw. Especially with “spirited” kids.

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