The Anatomy of an Apology

By Izzy Braico

As someone studying rhetoric, I believe that words are powerful. They have the capability to make us feel, think, and act in ways that we might not expect, or that we might not recognize. Recently, I’ve noticed that two simple words have a lot more impact than we necessarily give them credit for: “I’m sorry.” I’ve been talking a lot to my friend Charlotte, who just lost her father, and she was struck by the way people’s first reaction was to tell her they were sorry, even though they had nothing to apologize for. Why do we say, “I’m sorry,” for things over which we have no control? Sometimes it’s because we don’t know what else to say. Sometimes it’s because it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s just because we’re plain insecure.

But how does apologizing under these circumstances change the dynamic between the person issuing and the person receiving the apology? What does apologizing in these situations actually do to the receiver of the apology? When we overuse this phrase, or apologize when we don’t really mean it, we cheapen the power that these simple words have to connect people.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the different meanings that the phrase “I’m sorry” actually has. The first way “I’m sorry” functions is as an expression of regret. This is probably the one that most people are familiar with– we apologize when we hurt a friend’s feelings, when we bump into a stranger on the train, when we steal our mother’s engagement ring and sell it at a pawn shop.

The second way it functions is as an expression of sorrow. This is the meaning the phrase usually takes on when we apologize for a friend’s loss of a loved one. We’re not actually apologizing for something we did, but we’re trying to extend our sympathy to them in a way that is intended to bring us together.

But what happens when apologizing doesn’t bring us together, but rather drives us apart? I’m sure we all know people who apologize for everything—for voicing their opinion, for taking up space, for saying things that other people might not want to hear. I’ve noticed this trend is especially prevalent with my female friends, who seem to be socially conditioned to apologize for existing in ways that their male counterparts might feel entitled to. But apologizing for the things we shouldn’t have to apologize for only heightens the divide between the person apologizing and the person in a position to forgive them. It gives the receiver of the apology the power to accept or deny that person’s expression of regret, creating a power dynamic that has the potential to shape the way we interact with one another in damaging ways.

When we’re apologizing for things that we do need to apologize for, though, the circumstances are a little different. In one sense, apologizing places the burden of action onto the potential forgiver—after the apology is issued, we tend to accept that the person apologizing has done all that they need to do. However, we often fail to hold people to a standard that says their actions should match their words. We expect, at the minimum, that a person have the humility to admit that they were wrong (and I’m sure we all know people who can’t even meet this basic requirement) but we often fall short of holding people accountable for their actions, and expecting a change in behavior. This creates a culture of empty words in times where apologies are not necessarily enough.

I should be clear, though. I don’t mean to place undue blame upon people who apologize excessively. I sometimes fall into this habit myself, so I understand firsthand just how easy it is to express sympathy or regret not because that’s what we’re feeling, but because we feel like we have to. Instead, I issue a challenge to myself and to others like me: stop the empty apologizing, and say what you mean. I truly believe that this will create a culture which is a little more honest, where we hold each other accountable, and where we can give back the meaning to a phrase that has lost its power over time.

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