‘Just let yourself be broken and humiliated. Just your whole life, keep telling people, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…’
– Chuck Palahniuk, Choke
Yesterday wasn’t a very good day and I spent a lot of it saying that I was sorry. In line with the typical British cliche, it’s how I diffuse a stressful situation or show empathy or express frustration or…the list goes on! And sometimes I meant it and sometimes I didn’t, and sometimes I was at fault and sometimes I wasn’t.
I was genuinely sorry to break the news of a likely cancer diagnosis even though I knew that my sympathy couldn’t influence the outcome. I was sorry I snapped at a colleague, even if perhaps she deserved it; she’d caught me at a bad time with a stupid request, but I hadn’t needed to be that mean about it. Hmmm, I was probably more sorry at being caught than I was sorry for actually speeding, if I’m being honest, but hopefully the policeman couldn’t tell the difference. And my apologies certainly grew less and less sincere to the man who was angrily blaming me for the mistakes of other people, quickly slipping into my least favourite but sadly frequently needed apology – ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’
I’ve been thinking a lot about apologies recently; not particularly because I’ve done anything that I really needed to be sorry for, but because I’ve just been saying it a lot and I’m interested in the manner of how we say sorry and what we really mean. Are you sorry you got caught, or sorry for the damage you’ve caused? Are you saying sorry to just make it better or because you feel terrible for how it’s happened? Are you sorry for the effect it’s had on you or them?
In my communication skills teaching at medical school, we were taught about ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ and told to use it with ‘I’m sorry you’ve had that experience’ as a way of expressing empathy without taking any of the blame. It was meant to allow us to apologise for the perceived or actual mistakes of other doctors without undermining them, and it is a very powerful tool. I am sorry that you’re upset, but it’s not really my fault so I’m going to deflect your hurt or anger away from me and put it back on the situation or problem.
But sadly I notice similar tones being used at other times where the person apologising really should be accepting at least some of the blame. ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t realise it was a joke’ is a way of saying ‘I’m sorry what I said hurt you’ without taking on the weight of that hurt. It’s not the teller’s fault you’re hurting, it’s your fault for being unreasonable. ‘I’m sorry you were offended’ is definitely not the same as ‘I’m sorry I offended you.’ And ‘I’m sorry you didn’t realise that we weren’t exclusive’ blames the slighted party who feels that they have been cheated on, rather than acknowledging that there have been communication lapses that have led to a horrible misunderstanding. I often wonder if that’s way these apologies aren’t easily accepted, why these mistakes aren’t easily forgiven. The apology feels disingenuous.
I can only describe it was being a sort of active or passive apology. Are you actively sorry for your part in the consequences or passively sorry for the effects? It makes a difference! Passive apologies aren’t always without purpose though. They can allow us to acknowledge a shitty situation in which we are powerless but when that knowledge doesn’t make it any less awful. This is the tool I use to show empathy to my patients; it’s how I accept that my words are changing their lives forever and I am so so sorry for that. But passive apologies don’t always show sympathy. Sometimes they acknowledge distance, misunderstanding, disconnection. I’m sorry you did this to yourself, it wasn’t my fault. These are no good; these just make me angrier.
Saying that you’re sorry and meaning it is hard to do. Even for a Brit for who knowingly apologises when it’s not needed! I can say that I’m sorry all day every day, but when I’ve done something wrong, when I’ve hurt someone I love, it’s a completely different story. A completely different apology. Our apologies exist on a scale and become harder and harder to say as we accept more and more of the blame.
But, oh wow, they are so much more effective when we do.
I’m sorry to break this news to you.
I’m sorry you weren’t expecting this.
I’m sorry this is happening to you.
I’m sorry you had that experience.
I’m sorry you missed the point.
I’m sorry you didn’t understand.
I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry I was caught.
I’m sorry I lied.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.
I’m sorry I did that to you.
I’m sorry, it’s my fault.
I’m sorry that I hurt you.