How Not to Say 'I'm Sorry'

The best ways to make sure the other person doesn't feel better.

Posted May 15, 2020

“I’m sorry” is only one part of an apology but, for most of us, it’s the most familiar part. It’s a classic line we’ve been taught since childhood, but even so, we don’t always make good use of it.

You’ve probably made misguided or inadequate apologies. I certainly have. Here are some of the most likely ways you might mess up the part where you think you’re saying “I’m sorry.” Do you recognize any of these mistakes that won't make the other person feel better?

 Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash
Source: Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash

The Two-Word Solution

If you say only the two magic words (“I’m sorry”), your statement is not likely to be effective. This also goes for the one magic word (“Sorry”). In my understanding of a good apology, the “I’m sorry” part of the conversation is the second step of a four-part process (after understanding the injury and before making restitution and preventing repetition).

Trying to End the Conversation

“I already said I was sorry!” means that you think this conversation should be over by now. “What more do you want?” is usually not a sincere question, but a plea for appreciation for your own effort. Any attempt to stop the conversation, rather than understand the injury, or a demand that the other person moves on (“Please forgive me; I can’t stand you being mad at me anymore”) won’t be satisfying and won’t resolve the problem.

“I’m Sorry, But …”

Whatever follows the “but” (“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” “it was a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” “you started it”) invalidates the first, apology part of the sentence. You’re not really taking responsibility and the listener doesn’t feel apologized-to.

“I’m Sorry If …”

Similarly, the “if” implies that something might not have actually happened (“if anything I said upset you,” “if anyone was bothered by what I did,” “if people thought I meant X or Y”). It suggests that you, the apologizer not only don’t take responsibility for real hurt or injury, you doubt whether any such thing happened.

“I’m Sorry That You …”

A statement that skips the actual effect on the other person and focuses instead on their—presumably wrongheaded—reaction (“I’m sorry that” … “you got so mad at me,” “you see it that way,” “you’re so upset by this”) might sound like an apology, but it isn’t one. It’s an indirect criticism of the other person.

Use of the Passive Voice

This kind of statement implies that no actions on the part of the speaker are relevant to the hurt someone feels. The passive voice and the passive "posture" suggest that things just sort of happened (“I’m sorry ...” "that unfair things were allowed to happen,” “that I was forced by a bad situation to do what I’d promised not to do,” “actions taken by me weren’t what I intended”) and fails to show that you hold yourself accountable for your behavior or its results.

Vagueness

Similar to the use of passive voice, vagueness removes the specifics of a person’s actions from the conversation (“I’m sorry …” “for what happened,” “for any hurt that might have been caused,” “for poor communication patterns”). It’s hard to see what if anything you really regret.

“Sorry About That!”

In a way, this brief statement is worse than “Sorry.” This phrase conveys an informal attitude of “Oops, too bad, dude! Do I look like I care?” It diminishes both the apologizer and the hurt person.

Please note: Some phrases with only two words (“My bad”) or three words (“I blew it”) are not thorough, either, but they’re often more promising. They seem to take more responsibility.

“… But it’s Not My Fault”

An apology statement that concludes with a denial of fault, blame, or responsibility decidedly doesn’t hold you personally accountable for your impact on another person. Blame isn’t the issue here; what matters is how the other person has been affected.

Complicated Speech or Going On and On

Complex statements that become so obscure no one can tell what’s being said or lengthy speeches that explain things about the circumstances or other considerations, like motives, character, are not real apologies. They give you a chance to air your voice, but do not express caring about the other person’s experience. They may just wear the other person out.

Rationalizations and Justifications

Any kind of explanation also makes the conversation be about your point of view, not the feelings of the person who’s hurt. To make your behavior sound justified is very tempting, though, because you can shift the focus away from your responsibility for your actions—and their effects.

I recommend you save these reasons for later. If you still need them, you can discuss them after you’ve made a good, thorough apology for the effect your action (or inaction) had.