January 24, 2011

Eight Ways to Apologize Without Saying “I’m Sorry.”

The phrase “I’m sorry” is supposed to make its recipient feel better, but thanks to a lifetime of misuse, it rarely completes its mission.  Indeed, it often requires assistance to have an impact, such as repetition, further explanation, multiple exclamation points (see why this one won’t work), or even…groveling.

Somewhere along the way of evolution, the words “I’m sorry” picked up a couple of permanent connotation hitchhikers:  assumption of guilt and admittance of wrongdoing.  So when you say the words to someone, there is an implication that you are in some way responsible for the situation.

And yet, the word “sorry” is employed for a laughably wide range of circumstances, even those for which we are not to blame…from condolences over a death (I’m so sorry for your loss) to asking a speaker to repeat a sentence (Sorry…what did you say?) to the absolutely brilliant application my cab driver shouted at someone who cut us off last week (Get your sorry ass out of my lane, you @#$*!).  

The upshot?  We’ve all become desensitized to the word “sorry.”  So, when you really ARE at fault for something, its use as an apology seems trite and unrepentant.  And when you’re NOT at fault for something, its presence in your response gently paints you with a brush of culpability.

How do you win this communication war against the word’s multiple personality issue?  Stop using it.  Find other, more meaningful ways to express your feelings, and put careful thought into the appropriate response for the situation at hand.  Here are eight different phrases you can employ that express either justified remorse or peripheral acknowledgement of a situation:

  1. It’s unfortunate that…
  2. How sad for you that (this) happened…
  3. I sympathize with your situation/disappointment/frustration…
  4. What a shame that…
  5. Will you please forgive my insensitivity/error/indiscretion…
  6. I am completely at fault here, and I apologize…
  7. I am unhappy about (or I regret) the pain/inconvenience you’ve been caused
  8. This situation has filled me with regret… 

These options are merely a short list…there are many other ways you can craft a suitable response without actually using the phrase “I’m sorry.”  So the next time you’re about to use it, check back to this list to see if one of them applies, and if not, spend a few moments defining your expression’s true meaning.

As to the cab driver, we’ll leave his colorful use of the word “sorry” alone.  It’s all part of what makes a cab ride in NYC so memorably entertaining, and offers humorous inspiration for topics on our blog.  Yep, we’re selfish…sorry about that.

5 thoughts on “Eight Ways to Apologize Without Saying “I’m Sorry.”

  1. Pingback: Stop using this phrase…ASAP! « the voice of reason in marketing

  2. Pingback: Five tips to deliver bad news gracefully. « the voice of reason in marketing

  3. “Dost thou fail? Art thou sorry? Is fear in thine heart?
    Where I am these are not.”
    Liber AL vel Legis, II: 46-47

    I deleted this wretched word from my vocabulary ages ago. It worked it’s way back in lately and I found your site while searching for more eloquent alternatives. Thank You!

  4. Pingback: Tips for saying “thank you” like you mean it. | the voice of reason in marketing