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Ten ways to say sorry and what they really mean

Is your apology a remedial expression of regret or a sarcastic intimation of blame? Find out...

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2017 07:42 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Should India’s railway minister Suresh Prabhu have apologised for the two train derailments that occurred in quick succession in Uttar Pradesh, instead of just tweeting “it has caused me deep anguish”?

Should Britain apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919?

Should people say sorry for keeping someone waiting for five minutes? Should you say sorry if you laugh out loud at a joke that others find mildly offensive?

My answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above, though some may disagree.

With the world increasingly facing up to its past and apologising to peoples and countries they have wronged, the role of apology and reparation in the personal, social and political spaces has evolved.

People are making news either for apologising all over the place or for stubbornly refusing to do so.

But what do we mean when we say sorry? “It would seem that we may mean anything from remedial expressions of regret to sarcastic intimations of blame,” write psychologists Daniela Kramer-Moore and Michael Moore in the journal ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Just like people, apologies are widely different. Here are 10 different types of ‘sorry’, and a look at what each really means.

Superfluous: My apology to a parrot I inadvertently startled on its perch outside my window falls into this category. These are apologies made instinctively without any remorse. It holds no value for either the person saying it or the person (or in this case, parrot) it’s being said to.

Public relations: People often say sorry for things they said or did because of the reaction it evoked rather than out of a sense of remorse or regret. This is saying sorry out of expediency. People on social and popular media, where views and opinions are shared with millions within seconds, often resort to this type of apology.

Sarcastic: This is the face-saving apology that prefaces a really rude remark or insult. The tone and context make it obvious that it is not an apology. You think someone is being stupid, so you say, “I’m sorry, but you are just being an idiot.”

Political: This is an apology that isn’t an apology at all but is meant to look like one. The sentence usually includes an “if”, indicating that the person doesn’t really think an apology is necessary. So when you say, “I’m sorry if the sentiments I expressed earlier hurt certain people”, you’re really saying, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you think I did, well then I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Appeasement: This allows you to control the other person’s reaction and defuse an unpleasant situation. You apologise not because you made a mistake but because you don’t want the other person to create a scene. Such an apology doesn’t resolve the issue itself, and may in fact lead to the formation of a vicious cycle.

Avoidant: People use this to avoid acknowledging something they don’t want to admit having done. So by simply saying, “I’m sorry about what happened”, you avoid addressing a grave mistake or error of judgment that you made.

Parasitic: This type of apology usually includes a “but” and is typically added to soften the blow in a statement likely to annoy or upset the recipient, such as a note from your mobile service provider: “We are sorry for the inconvenience caused but we cannot refund the charges for services you claim were provided without your consent”. Uff!

Politeness: Some people over-apologise as a way of gaining approval. These are typically people who are over-anxious to be liked and also avoid conflict. This apology usually means, “I’m a nice person and I’m not a threat to you, so let’s all be friends”.

Guilt: This is more about assuaging your own sins of commission or omission than acknowledging the wrong done to someone else. It’s a bit like Don Corleone going a priest every Sunday to confess his sins, before going back to business as usual.

Empathic: This is the consummate apology, when you are empathising with the other person and expressing regret for a hurt. The apology must be voluntary and not demanded or sought through emotional blackmail. Such apologies are transformative and have the power to resolve conflict and bring people together.

First Published: Aug 26, 2017 18:20 IST