• Sumo

Important words have more than one meaning. That’s easy to see: ‘I love my wife’, and ‘I love going without shoes’ are both true – but they are not the same kind of love.

From flckr user norm_p

In this post, I note two different meanings of the word sorry. They are both good meanings, until we confuse them. We hear and say ‘Sorry!’ often enough to try and avoid confusion.

First, sorry means: I apologise for doing the wrong thing.

Sorry I did not call you when I promised.
Sorry for yelling at you.
Sorry for taking your possessions.
Sorry for gossiping about you.

This sorry acknowledges an offence, a legitimate burr in the relationship. Then it identifies the cause, me. I agree that the offence – great or small – came at my hand. I tell you that you have every right to be disgruntled.

This sorry is a confession. It implies a request for restoration with forgiveness (which, of course, cannot be demanded and may take some time).

Secondly, sorry means: I can explain.

Sorry I’m late, the baby threw up on me as we left the house.
Sorry I took your phone, we needed to call an ambulance.
Sorry for the offence, in my country that word is not rude.

This sorry also acknowledges offence, or a potential for offence. The difference is the cause: it’s an accident, a misunderstanding, an emergency, etc. There’s an explanation. I don’t mean excuse or cop-out, I mean a real explanation.

This sorry is a request for understanding. The implied request is not restoration, but continuation of relationship (‘I’ll tell you what happened because I don’t want anything to come between us’). Who would fail to have compassion on a rushed parent suddenly covered in baby vomit?

But … don’t confuse these two types of sorry.

If you are guilty, don’t explain. That’s a cop-out. This sidesteps guilt and places the blame elsewhere. The excuse overwhelms the confession, as in the examples below. If there’s no confession, there’s no restoration.

Sorry I didn’t call, I thought you’d understand.
Sorry for yelling, but the traffic home was really aggravating.
Sorry for taking your stuff, I didn’t realise they are important to you.
Sorry for gossiping, I had to get it off my chest.

Sadly, these false confessions are easy to find and easy to create. They seem to be near automatic. I’ve done this, and been on the end of this too.

On the other hand, if there’s a real reason something went poorly, stick to explanation. There’s nothing to confess (even if the other person is angry and acts as if there was some unforgivable misdemeanour). There’s no reason to be burdened with imaginary guilt. No doubt you will incur some real guilt soon enough!

When we say, ‘Sorry!’, we do well to know what sort of sorry we need – and then stick to it.