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The Tiny Word That Changes an Apology into an Insult

Don’t let this two-letter word make your apology false.

Source: kimberrywood/Shutterstock

If you're on the giving or receiving end of an apology, be on the alert for the little word if. Almost any apology that begins with “I’m sorry if...” is not really an apology.

So watch out for “I’m sorry if I was insensitive,” or “I’m sorry if you took what I said as offensive.” And if you're the one making the apology and find yourself inclined to insert an if, try something more straightforward like this instead: “The comment I made was offensive. I’m sorry I was insensitive, and I want you to know that it won’t happen again.”

Not only does "I'm sorry if..." invite the other person to question their own reactions to the actions that offended them, “I’m sorry if...” can also come across as condescending. At a team meeting, "Charles," a client of mine, made a tasteless joke about the “female brain.” Afterward, he said to his boss, “I’m sorry if my comment hurt your feelings.” Her snappy response was, “Believe me, Charles, my feelings are not so easily hurt.”

The anger in her voice puzzled him. He didn’t understand that he was suggesting that his superior was an overly sensitive woman, rather than apologizing for making a comment that was clearly out of line.

I don’t want to be the language police, but I encourage you to pay attention to such tiny add-on words, including but, that will turn your "sorry” into a “not really sorry at all.”

As I explain in my book, Why Won't You Apologize? the challenge of apologizing involves a lot more than saying the right words. But saying the wrong words can feel worse to the hurt party than no apology at all.