sorry to misuse

I am often dismayed by the misuse of words.  This is not to say that I’m horribly offended by grammatical transgressions (though I often make fun of them), but there are some things people say because they’re “supposed to” that make little sense to me.

The best example of this is the apology.

Sometimes things go wrong.  Sometimes things I find acceptable are not acceptable to someone else. Sometimes people get hurt.  I think there needs to be a distinction between apologizing for something and sympathizing with someone about something.  It seems we often use “I’m sorry” for both of these situations in English.

If a friend cannot make it to hang out with me because they chose to do something else, that’s fine.  Letting me know that they cannot make it is all I require from them.  No harm, no foul.  Often, in this situation, an apology seems odd.  If the friend in question has gotten sick or something equally out of their control, they are not at fault.  If the person has chosen to let something else take priority, even if that something else is re-organizing the sock drawer, then why on earth are they apologizing?  Are they sorry to not hang out with me?  Not particularly if they chose to do something else. I have a hard time understanding the use of an apology in this situation because it is meaningless. Even if the lack of appearance could be interpreted as malicious, it is hardly something the person genuinely feels sorry about.

Now, if I were waiting out in the cold and the person didn’t let me know they couldn’t make it until I’d been standing out in the cold for thirty minutes, that would be a time where an apology might serve to nicely deal with the frustration of having been cold for nothing.  In that kind of context, an apology serves nicely to try and redress the issue.

So it really comes down to this, in my mind: “sorry” is a term to be used when the person at fault actually managed to cause some kind of damage. Not only that, sorry is warranted (in my mind) when the person saying it intends to refrain from ever doing whatever the offense is again.

If a friend who is chronically late shows up late, it is hardly worth apologizing.  This is a chronically late friend doing what he or she normally does. If the chronically late friend promised to be on time because there was an event beginning at a certain time, and even with multiple reminders managed to screw up, then maybe an apology is warranted, but unless there was a genuine agreement to change (even if it’s just this once), there is no need for an apology.

I have the same kind of problem when I hear “I’m sorry if I’m being crass.”  No, you’re not sorry.  You may be warning me, but you are not actually going to feel bad about saying something that I find crass. You are actually using that phrase to bypass responsibility. Commit to it, say “I’m going to be crass here…” Don’t apologize when, in all honesty “sorry” has nothing to do with your feelings about the words that are about to come out of your mouth.

This may sound like a ridiculous peeve, but it is a turn of phrase I find truly frustrating.  People say “sorry” all the time for things they don’t actually feel sorry about.  They don’t even necessarily feel bad about it.  We do not have a lot of words to express sorry, so there are not a whole series of other options commonly used. Use sorrys sparingly and meaningfully.  As an alternative, I suggest clear communication and verification of what is and isn’t socially acceptable.  If people know who you are, then you shouldn’t have to spend so much time apologizing for being yourself.

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