The Meaning of “I’m Sorry”

(This is the third of at least four ‘miniature’ posts. I’m spending most of my time these days digesting what I’ve been learning, about myself and about others, from a raft of new people I’ve met in the past month, and from the experience, for the first time in 30 years, of living alone. This isn’t giving me enough time for my usual lengthy blog articles, but I wanted to at least get these four ideas out, for your thoughts.)

One evening last week I was ranting on Twitter about “What the World Needs More Of”. I wrote:

the world needs more: lovers, dreamers, people unafraid to be different, people who know who they are, appreciative listeners…

the world needs more: people honest enough to admit they are broken, damaged, disconnected, seeking healing and sanctuary…

the world needs more: people who shout that the emperors, all of them, have no clothes…

the world needs more: people not afraid to say “i’m sorry” for things that aren’t their fault.

This last rant raised questions from some perplexed followers: Why should we apologize for things that aren’t our fault? I explained:

“i’m sorry” = i empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to “fix” it so i’ll just be present with you

The discussion moved over to Google Buzz, as the puzzled followers found my explanation more interesting than the initial rant. Here’s how it went:

Melinda Fleming wrote: ” The small hours do bring truth to those who listen deeply, don’t they?”

Karen HayDraude wrote: “My sister who lives in the US calls this, “Canadian sorry”, since her American pals were forever asking her what she was apologizing for.”

Melinda replied: “That’s funny! There’s a difference, though. In Afrikaans we use the word “meegevoel” which literally means “to feel together”. It seems that, in English, the only way to express such a sentiment, is to say “I’m sorry” which sounds like an apology for wrongdoing on one’s own part. But “meegevoel” is a simple expression of being & feeling empathically “with” the other person.”

I chimed in: “More evidence that modern language is designed to convey information not feeling. Just did a crossword for which ‘sorry’ was the answer to the clue ‘Not my problem!’ “

Mushin Schilling added: “The dutch (zuidafrikaans) ‘meegevoel’ is properly translated, I think, with ‘compassion’ – but knowing of this English inadequacy I have introduced the Germanic “I feel with you” into conversations.

What exactly do we mean when we say “I’m sorry”? It can be an apology (“oops I didn’t mean to do that”), a regret (“I should have done that.”), an excuse (“not my department”) or an expression of empathy (“I empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to ‘fix’ it so I’ll just be present with you”). The “Canadian sorry” is deliberately ambiguous, allowing the listener to choose which of these three meanings s/he chooses — I’ll leave it to you whether doing that shows cowardice, indifference or cleverness. As a Canadian I’d say it’s potentially dangerous, if you’re called on which you intended.

The words “sorry” and “sore” mean, etymologically, “in pain”. “Sorrow” originally meant “grief or sickness”, so to be sorry meant to be so full of grief or sickness that it was painful. The use of the term as an apology is at best a hyperbole and at worst a lie. As an apology “Pardon me” is more apt (though that expression is now used as a question, with the tacit “… I wasn’t listening to or didn’t hear what you said”, or even as an accusation if said angrily).

The truth is that “I’m sorry” too often means nothing at all. Like “I love you” it is important when said genuinely, but prone to overuse and hence cheapening of meaning. We should use it to mean what it originally meant: I’m pained by the grief/sickness that you and/or I feel. If we’re not really suffering, we shouldn’t imply, with the word “sorry”, that we are.

This brings us back to empathy and compassion, the appreciation of the feelings (suffering or joy) of others. This appreciation is about attention, understanding, and caring. In our attention-deficit society, it’s in short supply. I’ve often said (infuriatingly to many) that with notable exceptions men tend to seek attention more than appreciation, while women tend to seek appreciation more than attention. Men try to “fix” simple and complicated problems, while women appreciate the complexity of predicaments. If it’s a predicament it can’t be fixed, and if it’s a problem, just empathizing rather than doing something may seem lame. The trick is to know which is which. Generally, if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, it’s probably complex, and in that case empathy is called for.

What I’m doing is asking to be “pardoned” when I’ve done something wrong, or think I may have (the Canadian in me), acknowledging regret in the rare situations when I wish I’d done something differently, and, when I’m genuinely feeling pain or suffering for my own situation or that of another I care about, briefly describing how I feel and then, as appropriate, acknowledging the other person’s suffering. And when someone expresses their own pain or suffering and I cannot honestly say I feel their pain or suffering, I simply acknowledge that suffering.

Clarity of expression means never having to say you’re sorry. Our language is so poor at conveying emotion, and the other languages I’m aware of are only marginally better. There are times I genuinely loathe language, and prefer to empathize silently, which tends to be better appreciated by animals than humans (and which does not work at all over the phone and other social technologies).

Perhaps we need to study animals to relearn their skill at conveying and detecting empathy. Perhaps we need to either abandon or improve communication tools that are limited to disembodied words, which are so clever at conveying ideas, at rhetorical expression, and at deception, and so useless at conveying things that really matter. The world needs a better way to say, and show, “I hear, I appreciate, and I care.”

Where might we find, or how might we invent, this better, nonverbal way?

And what else does the world need more of?

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14 Responses to The Meaning of “I’m Sorry”

  1. Nathan Maus says:

    Here in Minnesota, we often use sorry as you said instead of “Pardon me.” It is one of the things that do that really irks me. I’m sorry is supposed to be used for serious matters, not when you cross paths in the hallway and almost bump into each other. I totally agree with you when you mentioned that it cheapens the word, when there’s not true feeling behind it.

  2. WDF says:

    Two things strike me on this …

    (a) All we have to do is say I hear you, I appreciate you and/or your situation, and I do care. This caring could be best done by finding/figuring out how one could truly help the person in their situation. A bit of back and forth dialogue that is not mindlessly applied.

    (b) I remember reading Parker Palmer’s writing on how, when was deeply depressed that the best friend he had was a fellow who came by but did not talk much at all about his situation, but he rubbed his feet and took care of him as best he could. No talking — just doing.

    These two might start us down the road to where you want to go.

  3. SBean says:

    “Clarity of expression means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    Clarity of thought results in only acting out of love, and not necessarily saying anything at all. This I’ve learned from The Work of Byron Katie. (

  4. patti digh says:

    dave – i have long investigated the ways in which people in different cultures (and languages) say “i’m sorry,” (or don’t), so I find this interesting. here’s my question, at the end of all that thinking: why not simply say what you offer at the end: “I hear, I appreciate, and I care.” Sometimes it might be said with those words, and sometimes with no words. For me, the question might be “what would love do?”

  5. Wonderful reflections, Dave.
    I think we know when someone is sorry–without them saying a thing. As someone has said, even a dog knows the difference in being accidentally tripped over and being kicked. Impact on their body may be the same, but the intent is different and they know it.

    Words fail us many times in the deepest of human emotions. Silent tears, holding of a hand, matching the other person’s body language can all be ways of saying, “I’m here, and I’m not abandoning you in your sorrow (whether we’ve inflicted it or not).

    I really like your question of what do we need more of. We need more silence of communication. The most powerful retreats I’ve been to have been ones that are at least partially silent so that we can observe the ways we communicate from a different perspective.

    Thank you (overused but sincere, at least in this moment!)

  6. Tree Bressen says:

    I think emotion is conveyed more by tone of voice than by word choice. “I hear, I appreciate, and I care” sounds clunky to me, but even that, if said with sufficient feeling, might connect. “Meegevoel” is probably better. I’ve long thought we need a different word in English to distinguish between apology and empathy, and that one seems as good as any–thank you.

  7. Tom Clifton says:

    I have enjoyed these miniature posts. They are coming through clear and concise and without the visual clutter of some of your longer posts. Please consider retaining this format. It is powerful.

  8. nice post. thanks.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    The world needs a better way to say, and show, “I hear, I appreciate, and I care.”

    Where might we find, or how might we invent, this better, nonverbal way?

    And what else does the world need more of?

    Having sex more often with someone(s) we care about would be a good start, no ?

  10. John Graham says:

    I find the more upset someone is with me, the *less* likely I am to say sorry; sorry can be part of a cycle of abuse – I see more and more the value of NVC’s “juicy” apologies and thankyous. “Sorry” in a way lets us both off the hook, I feel we’re both a bit cheated… instead holding my ground, showing not telling that I’ve heard..showing with my choice of words, paraphrasing, enquirin…silence can only go so far. Then enquiring into whether the other feels heard, etc.


    In ho’oponopono, and some other practices I’ve come across, value IS given to an inward gesture of apology and seeking forgiveness (along with love and gratitude) for things that aren’t your fault…situations even with someone you haven’t met. This gets into interesting areas of our (undoubted) shared responsibility for this interconnected world – yet completely without blame. Maybe it’s like we’re taking on all the apology, until the blame/apology is gone. If that kinda makes sense.


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  14. my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

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