“I am sorry.” “Sorry, I didn’t mean it.” “Sorry, it’s our policy”
We hear the word “sorry” a lot.
And it makes you pause to think about what “sorry” really means. Dictionary.com has a number of definitions, including the top suggestion of “feeling regret, compunction, sympathy, pity, etc.”
But as I reflect on the word “sorry” I know I largely need to remove it from my vocabulary – at least in many cases. I think we’d all be better off if we stopped abusing the word.
And now that I’ve been thinking about it I am sorry for how others use the word too. It may be one of the most abused words in English.
Let’s think about “sorry” and how it is often used in society a little bit and see if we can be better about the word.
1) Sorry Is Often Used For the Trouble You Cause
If I look at the number of times I hear “sorry” in my world (and it’s a lot if you pay attention) it is usually someone that is saying “sorry” as a way to justify their actions. You make a decision – to prioritize one person over another, to buy from one company over another or to leave your boyfriend/girlfriend – and that decision has consequences. And what happens so often is these consequences are covered over with a “sorry.”
In many cases a person has taken a knowing action knowing full well the natural and probable consequences of their actions. A women deciding to leave her boyfriend knows that he will likely be upset and disappointed. Yet the break-up will often be papered and covered with a number of “I am sorry,” and “I didn’t mean it.” But it was deliberated, meant and intended.
If we look back at the fundamental definition of “sorry” is about feeling regret and sympathy. Do you really feel – fully feel – regret if you are the one that knowingly caused an action or event to happen? If you really regret the action would you have done it?
Or does the use of sorry really just show that you wish you wouldn’t be responsible for your actions? You want to leave your boyfriend and live a different life and you knowing do that – but you just wish that your decisions will have no consequences on others.
I am “sorry” but your actions do have natural and probable consequences. And we are all responsible for the results of our actions.
2) Sorry Often Shows a Lack of Ownership
And that gets to another core point. Most of the time when people use sorry they are just saying I don’t want to own my actions.
If you really analyze what most people do their internal dialog would sound something like “hey, I want to do this for my reasons…but I kinda hope I don’t have to take the consequences.” That’s how I often see sorry used.
Is it really responsible to take the attitude of “oh well” to those negatively impacted and know that you’ll just tell them “I am sorry.”
How about owning your actions and saying “I decided this”? Which could be followed by an “and I know this isn’t what you wanted but I had to make the decision because of [X].”
Just looking at that formulation shows us how the “I am sorry” phrase commonly used is so much weaker in so many ways.
In fact when you just say “I am breaking up with you, I am sorry.” “I am sorry” actually works to close some of the conversation and redirect from real issues. Rather than face the issue the conversation turns to feeling bad about the person impacted by the decision.
It’s a much different conversation than “I am breaking up with you because…” You can see how not using “I am sorry” requires much less ownership.
3) Most of the Time There are Deeper Issues
Not only does “sorry” often keep us from owning our actions, it often keeps us away from deeper issues. Like facing our value alignments and having to make hard decisions.
Let’s take a common example from the retail world. You accidentally buy some sub-par product or service. You return to the retailer for a refund and you are met with “Sorry, our policy is…”
Is that retailer really sorry?
You know the answer. They set their policy for their reasons to meet their objections. They truly aren’t sorry – in the definition of the word – that you don’t get a refund. They are, perhaps, sorry they can’t have their cake and eat it too by keeping the money and giving you the money back. But in the end they have put their needs before yours and they are just “sorry” that it’s become obvious to you that that is the case.
Similarly in break-ups, not attending events, or in other ways of picking option A over option B, in most cases it was a decision that was made knowingly. And “sorry” was just a convenient way of not having to deal with all of the deeper issues.
4) There Are Still Some Good Uses of Sorry
This is not to say we should never say we are sorry. I personally, as I have gotten more thoughtful about the word, I still use it. And my use is primarily limited to times when a loss, change or regret is caused by an outside event.
If I take an action and it causes an effect on you at some level it’s disingenuous for me to say I am sorry about it because I knew it was going to happen. I didn’t really regret it happening to you because I caused it.
On the other hand, if a friend has a family member die of cancer and I was in no way involved with the passing I feel perfectly OK saying that I am sorry for their loss. I truly regret it and I didn’t cause it.
In fact in this world I am sorry fits in a lot of places because so much of the loss and grief those around us may feel is caused by others or outside action.
So for me “I am sorry” is appropriate when I didn’t cause the result.
What I Am Doing Instead of “Sorry”
I am challenging myself to take ownership. I need to own my decisions and actions. The truth is I must set my priorities and make tough decisions in life and in business.
I now look at “sorry” as a weak word in most cases. Sure it has a lot of utility in that it is an easy way to acknowledge the human emotions of others.
But sorry is also a great band-aid word to avoid owning actions and deeper issues.
For this reason I am working hard to use “sorry” less and have more real and complete understandings with the people I interact with.
Maybe it’s time we all look a little different at how we misuse this word. And I am sorry if that causes a little discomfort.
By: The Our Shawn McBride who is constantly studying the Future of Business as the host of The Future Done Right(TM) Show. If you want regular content on the future of business subscribe to get new blog posts from us here.
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