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HomemilastwordSorry, Not Sorry

Sorry, Not Sorry

When you write for a living, you tend to take note of how people use words. Sometimes it makes you laugh because a misused word can change the entire meaning of a sentence quite dramatically (or inappropriately).

Often, you notice basic errors that make you want to grind your/you’re teeth until they’re/their/there fixed. Occasionally, you come across a wonderful word that you just can’t wait to use. (It is amazing how many uses you can find for “concatenate” when you really try…)

And sometimes you just know the beauty of a word is being eroded through misuse. “Sorry” is one such word. Used appropriately, “sorry” is one of the most powerful words in the English language. A heartfelt “sorry” can heal emotional wounds, open communication and build relationships.

A simple “I’m sorry” can convey that we are filled with compassion at someone else’s misfortune, even though that misfortune was not of our doing. When that misfortune IS of our doing, a sincere “I’m sorry” can be a powerful expression of remorse, a request for forgiveness and an acceptance of responsibility.
But something is happening with the use of the word “sorry”. It is being simultaneously over- and under-used.

It is over-used when people constantly say “sorry” when “excuse me” or “pardon me” would be far more appropriate. I’ve overheard people making multiple apologies just to move past each other: “Sorry, can I get past.” “Sorry, what was that? Oh, sorry, you want to get through?” “Yes, sorry.” “Sorry, there you go.” So much sorrow over a congested doorway.

The overuse of the word in this context has become so prevalent; it’s even been given its own social media hashtag: #sorrynotsorry. A study from the University of Waterloo in Canada shows that we’re more likely to offer up apologies to complete strangers (22 per cent of the time) than to our romantic partners (11 per cent) or family members (7 per cent). That’s crazy, right!

Conversely, though, there are situations when we don’t say “sorry” enough. When saying “sorry” can possibly have legal consequences, we fear it will be taken as an admission of guilt. New research from the Edith Cowen University found that in a medical context, patients respond most positively to an effective apology. What’s an effective apology? One that shows empathy and an understanding of the consequences.
In our relationships with patients and colleagues, there is definitely a place for “sorry” – but it must be genuine.

We’ve all been kept waiting at some point, so compare a recorded “We apologise for the delay – your call is important to us” with a heartfelt “I’m so sorry we’ve kept you so long, it has been very busy this morning, how can I help you?”. The first is trite; the second contrite… and much more likely to be met with a response of “that’s okay” (even if moments before, it wasn’t).

So, ditch the perfunctory apology. Don’t waste a good “I’m sorry” when someone bumps into you. Save it for when you really mean it.

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