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The Art of Apology: Why Saying Sorry Can Be Such a Struggle

Updated: Jan 31

When we are young, we learn from our parents that it is important to say sorry when we have done something wrong. When two kids fight, we teach them both to say sorry to make up for it. No matter who started the fight.

Misunderstanding the meaning of the word 'sorry' can make it difficult for some people to say sorry. Because the word covers much more than just reconciliation between two friends or saying that we did something wrong.

The origin of the word sorry

In ancient English, the word sārig was used, which is related to the noun sore. The meaning of this word is freely translated "in pain" or "sadness." Sore is, therefore, also related to the word "sorrow."

Therefore, it is also incorrect that saying sorry is, by definition, equivalent to offering an apology. The word can be used in many more ways and essentially means that you are sad about something or are in pain.

The 6 different meanings of the word sorry

Even though it differs slightly from culture to culture, you can generally say sorry in 6 different ways—each with a different meaning.

1. Saying sorry to express sympathy

When you offer condolences and say you are sorry, it doesn't mean that you are guilty of something, but that you are sad and feel sympathy for the pain of the person to whom you say you are sorry. In this case, it is an expression of compassion.

2. Saying sorry because you find something from the past upsetting

If your ancestors or compatriots have done something bad, you can still say sorry. It does not mean that you participated or have any blame. It says that you feel upset or very annoyed that it happened. It also says that you do not support the actions of your ancestors, and you disapprove of this.

3. Saying sorry to interrupt someone or ask for attention

If two people are talking and you want to interrupt their conversation, you can say sorry to demand their attention. You don't feel guilty or sad about anything, nor do you feel pain, but use the word as a courtesy to interrupt someone.

4. Saying sorry for nothing

Although saying sorry for nothing in some cultures such as the Japanese is a valued form of courtesy, it can be an unpleasant habit in other cultures. For example, if you say you are sorry to hang up during a phone call when there is nothing to be sorry for. But even if you say sorry because you want to take something out of your bag, the word is usually meaningless. A stop word without content that does not do much for the listener.

5. Saying sorry to accuse someone

In almost all cultures, using the word 'sorry' to accuse someone is considered inappropriate and antisocial. The sentence usually begins with "I'm sorry, but you…". As if you're really sad or in pain that you're going to blame the other when you're not.

6. Say you're sorry because you think you're guilty of something

If you (feel that you) are guilty of something and regret it, you can convey your sadness and regret by saying sorry.

However, most people get irritated when someone sincerely tries to say sorry for something they did wrong and then still tries to explain why it happened. When you are sorry for something you did wrong and regret it, there is no need to explain it. It feels the same to the listener as trying to blame someone or something else instead of taking full responsibility for your mistake.

Why can't some people say they are sorry?

Compassion for yourself and perfectionism play a significant role in whether or not you are able to say you are sorry. New Research shows that little compassion for yourself leads to great shame if that person shows that he is not perfect. The negative emotions that are unleashed in that situation by judging yourself are so overwhelming for the person that they literally and figuratively cannot cope with it.

What these people have to learn is more self-esteem and self-confidence as a result of which the lesser sides of themselves or a situation can also be mentioned. Nobody is perfect, and things happen every day that we can say sorry about. Whether we are guilty of it or not. Through more self-esteem and self-confidence, you learn that the dark sides can also be exposed.

Saying sorry varies by culture

Every culture deals with the word sorry differently. In Japan, for example, there are 20 ways to say sorry. Japanese culture even knows the word sorry out of gratitude. They also know, for example, the word "meiwaku." It means "sorry to bother you" or "sorry to come into your room." If you regret something in Japan because you did something wrong, you can also indicate the degree of regret with your bow while saying sorry. The deeper your bow, the more sorry you are.

In Brazil, regrets are often accompanied by a small gift. It indicates that you really care about someone. The expression of regret must take place privately because it is inappropriate to do this when other people are present.

In America, lawyers advise against saying sorry when something has happened. In the course of a lawsuit, it may be suggested that you have made an admission of guilt. While in Canada, it is customary to say you are sorry because this is never understood to mean that someone is guilty of anything. It is a form of compassion as the word was initially intended. There is a law in Canada itself that protects citizens from trials if they have said they are sorry and are therefore accused of something.

In the UK, you can never say sorry enough. All the meanings of the word are used all the time. When you walk past someone, you say sorry, and if you want to say something, you say sorry first. With this, the word that originated in English seems to have completely lost its original meaning.

Saying sorry creates bonding

Although too often saying sorry can make the real meaning and intent of the word lost, it also creates a bond. Saying sorry in this way indicates that you feel (about) the same way as the listener. This unanimity is a sign of understanding, and two people who want to understand each other are more connected.

That makes the word sorry more than an apology, a stop word, or a token of sympathy. Whether you are guilty of something or not, it is a powerful word that can bring people closer together.


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