The two words appear to work like magic. “I’m sorry” can resolve a conflict between co-workers, heal relationships and friendships and pave the pathway to forgiveness. The words feel like an automatic response when an issue arises and seems like the perfect thing to say in response to any troubling situation. According to Julia Wood, author of Communication Mosaics, language changes as the people who use it change. Since people have come to abuse the use of these two little words, the sincerity of them can no longer be trusted.
Perhaps you arrive late to a lunch date you planned. What to do? Say sorry. Perhaps you ditch your family to go hang out with a friend. How to repair the hurt feelings? Say you’re sorry. Maybe you’ve cheated on your significant other. How to mend the relationship before it falls apart? Say you’re sorry. The wide array of situations this phrase is used for undermines its importance. How can so few words provide healing power to such a large range of issues and conflicts between all sorts of varied relationships? People generally seem to accept “I’m sorry” as being a legitimate expression of remorse. While they do not find it valid the first time it is said, if it is repeated a few more times, forgiveness is usually right around the corner.
“I’m sorry” is the easy way out for those at fault. Instead of having to confront your friend about how you ditched her, you can throw out those two words in hopes of a quick and painless reconciliation. Rather than talking things out, it is more of a blanket to cover the real issues at hand. Those at the other end may question the sincerity in the apology, but may accept it as valid, also trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about feelings. What do we even mean when we say sorry? Are we sorry for our actions or just sorry we got caught? It is hard for even us to tell since the response is so automatic. Giving the situation some space can help you figure out if you are sorry in the first place.
The adage “If you were really sorry you wouldn’t have done it in the first place” rings true, despite the fact that we do not like to admit it. If you show up late to a meeting because you were talking on the phone outside the office and excuse your tardiness with a simple sorry it is obviously not genuine. Walking into the office just seconds after hanging up has given you no time to analyze your wrongdoing or feel remorse for disobeying the rules. Instead of jumping into what you think you should be saying, gain some courage and tell your boss, “I was on the phone outside, that is why I was late.” While it may feel uncomfortable, this is only because you are programmed to spit out “I’m sorry” before you can wrap your brain around what you did.
An apology and the phrase “I’m sorry” have come to be the same thing. An apology can be given without this rehearsed and abused phrase. An apology allows you to admit you feel remorse for what you’ve done and presents the opportunity to explain how you will be better next time. The next time you rush to mend an issue, think about what you’re going to say and make sure you actually are sorry.