The Meaning of ‘I’m Sorry’

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”).

Recently, I have experienced “I’m sorry” as more of an excuse to lessen the punishment and/or as a promise that that they will not do something again such as I’m sorry…I yelled at my employee, stole from the organization, continue to act inappropriately etc. (you get the picture). The unfortunate thing is that people are saying “I’m sorry” without meaning it. Like “I love you” it is important when said genuinely, but prone to overuse leading to cheapening of meaning.

What has happened to individuals saying it to mean what it originally meant: I’m pained by the sadness/grief/trouble that I created. My actions/behaviors will change to reflect how authentic I am with this apology.   An apology is not only a potentially powerful act, but it can be a powerful tool when used appropriately. This power can help with settling conflict and moving forward.  By contrast, a botched apology can exacerbate the conflict and become itself the subject of conflict. 

But when an apology is appropriate, you should keep the following in mind to make it effective:

  • Look introspectively and apologize not to overcome denial or the impulse to excuse or justify your behavior or action but apologize because it is the right thing to do and you mean it! i.e. I am sorry I lied and stole from the company but I was forced into doing it.  Really?
  • Be genuine. Don’t give a half-hearted apology or one that is not genuine; it smacks of self-interest and will fan the flames of the conflict. i.e. I did not mean to yell at my employee, and it will not happen again.  Next thing you know, you are back in my office at HR for doing the same thing.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the harm. The greater the degree of empathy for the victim of the harm, the more potent the apology.  Further, your behavior and actions need to change to show you truly see what you have done and really are sorry. (see above)
  • Express remorse or regret. “I’m sorry” is an essential component of any apology. i.e. What you’re doing is asking to be “pardoned” when you’ve done something wrong and acknowledging regret in the rare situations when you wish you’d done something differently, and, when you genuinely feeling pain or suffering for the situation that you created. 

Stop saying sorry if you do not mean it.  And if you do mean it, change your conduct so it is seen as believable.  Do you agree or disagree?  Please share your comments.

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About Patricia Knight
Hello and welcome. My name is Patricia Knight. Thank you for taking the time to view my blog. I’m a Human Resources professional who is currently pursing an MBA at the University of Nevada-Reno. I am an analytical, detail-oriented professional who believes that collaboration and negotiation are critical for successful employee relations between leadership and employees.

15 Responses to The Meaning of ‘I’m Sorry’

  1. This really is a splendid article. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to describe all this out for all of us. It’s a great help!

  2. Nyles says:

    I work in customer service and I say it often. In my everyday life I use it often without noticing it but when I do use it, I am being genuine and empathizing with those that are suffering or in need of someone to listen. I am in a relationship and I guess I use the word too often and it gets frustrating because they might not believe that I do not mean it genuinely. Once you work in customer service and make sure the customer is always happy, it is hard to break the habit of using it.

    • I agree. I say it but have forgotten the meaning because I say it and sometimes don’t really believe that I may mean it. I, myself need to get back to using it adequately. Thanks for sharing your story. I really appreciate it.


  3. Theresa says:

    Amazing article – thank you!!

  4. nibson says:

    This is really a wonderful article.cud u please clarify my doubt.i am working as a nurse in a hospital and i require a hike in ma salary.i wrote an application to d hospital authority.i want to write dat i am not satisfied with the hospital authorities how cud i express dat by using i m terribly sorry for that.please reply.

    • Thanks for enjoying my post. It is my opinion that you do not need to really say sorry for appealing there decision. I am certain this has not been the first time someone has disagreed about their salary. Make sure when you write the letter to be professional, respectful, and courteous in what you say. State your case my being thorough and honest. I hope this helps. If I can help more, please let me know.


  5. Andrew says:

    I found this very helpful. Here in Toronto, people are “sorry!” for everything. And I strongly believe if you are truly sorry, then you will change your behaviour so the outcome is not the same. Thank you for this – I’ve shared it on my Facebook page as I’m really tired of people using it as an excuse for poor behaviour, rudeness, etc. Don’r be sorry; be polite and be considerate moving forward. :).

  6. CJ says:

    I feel “sorry” is also overused…when expressing empathy for another person’s situation but in no way the responsibility of the person expressing. In a court case, a person who said “I’m sorry that happened” was understood to mean they were taking responsibility when they were only expressing empathy for what another was going through and completely nothing to do with them…this was used against them in court!

  7. Ann says:

    After hearing “I’m sorry” repeatedly from a spouse that uses it as an excuse I was glad to find someone who fully explained the true meaning in simple terms. I have sent this to the offending spouse so hey can see their meaningless “sorry” is just another way of excusing themselves for their bad behavior instead of actually changing the behavior.

  8. Joe B says:

    Very relevant and helpful. I just asked an employee (who is also my youngest son), what he mean’t when using the phrase “I’m sorry”…

  9. dvw says:

    Excellent clarification. For decades, I have quit using sorry until I’m resolute in ensuring what I’m sorry for isn’t repeated by me ever again. I do offer apologies and apologize and do my best not put my self in the same situation/predicament, so when I apologize it is valued as sincere and not discounted because I’m apologizing for the same thing over and over to the same party.

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