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Why do we say sorry?

Updated on June 15, 2011

Sorry is often meaningless

Have you ever stopped to wonder why people say sorry? I think it's one of the most meaningless words us humans have invented. It's a word that people use like a 'Get out of jail free' card. I did something wrong, all I have to do is say sorry and it'll be okay again. I've decided that from now on, I am going to call people on it when they say 'sorry.' They'll be saying, "Sorry..." and I'm just going to reply, "Actually, you're not sorry. You had a good evening while I stayed at home with my dog, so don't waste my time saying sorry you forgot to invite me because you had fun, you don't mean it."

A couple of years ago, when I still lived in China, I travelled home to South Africa one Christmas. In China, when you are in a crowd situation, especially at a train station or an airport, you have to walk with your elbows out, pushing your way through the crowd and elbowing people out of the way. Whenever you go back to civilization, you have to unlearn your rude behavior. In Johannesburg International Airport, the domestic terminal was quite crowded, and for a moment I forgot where I was and rammed my baggage trolley into a poor unsuspecting woman. Before I could say anything, she turned around and apologized to me. She was standing still, I was careless with my trolley, so why was she saying sorry to me? She couldn't have meant it because she'd done nothing wrong. Sometimes people just say sorry for the sake of saying it.

One partner cheats on the other. (Note I'm not discriminating and saying when a man cheats on his wife!) Anyway, they get caught, and what do they say, "I'm sorry, it'll never happen again. I love you." What poppycock. They don't mean it! They're not really sorry! They had a fun time, it was exciting cheating, they don't really regret it. They only say sorry, because they think that that's what you want to hear. Sorry is sort of expected of them. Them saying sorry will make you feel all good and forgiveness will seep out of your every pore.

In Tanzania, the two most common words you'll hear are "pole sana." You guessed it, this means 'sorry.' You bump your toe, someone you don't even know who's walking past will say, "Pole sana." You misplace your keys, and someone will say, "Pole sana." You get mugged on the street and people will say, "Pole sana." You cut your tongue when you lick a stamp and people will say, "Pole sana." Are they really sorry, not at all. It's just something people say to offer sympathy that they don't really mean. They want you to feel better because they've comiserated with you, but seriously, they don't care a jot if you feel better or not. People are actually quite self-centred.

Of course, there are times when people say sorry and genuinely mean it, like when someone close to you dies and they say they're sorry to hear it. I wish we could use a different word to 'sorry' in those circumstances. Sorry is just so senseless and has lost its meaning, I'm sorry to say. Now am I really sorry? I think not. I think when a person genuinely apologizes, and really means the 'sorry,' there should be some physical contact involved. Like a hug or a hand on the shoulder, some kind of contact that shows you are genuine. Your apology is the real deal.

The whole question of saying sorry was brought home to me today. One little boy, who granted is usually the troublemaker, was accused of pushing another boy. He wasn't allowed to join his peers until he apologized and said 'sorry' to the boy he was accused of pushing. I could see the agony of indecision on his face as he wrestled with what he was told to do. He didn't want to say 'sorry' for the sake of saying it. He didn't feel sorry, and I could see he thought that apologizing for the push was unfair. Children have a very strong sense of what is fair and what is unfair. Eventually, the adult blackmailed him to say 'sorry.' If you don't...then you won't...The little boy succumbed to the pressure and apologized for something you could see he didn't believe he was guilty of. As it turned out, another parent had observed the whole incident from start to finish, and it wasn't the little boy who was made to apologize who started it. The other one, should have said 'sorry' to him first. This made me wonder, how often are we blackmailed into aplogizing for something we weren't actually guilty of, just to make peace. Is this a kind of conflict resolution? Say sorry even if you don't mean it, so that the conflict is resolved and you can get on with your life? What message were we sending out to that little boy? Sorry is a punishment to avoid a bigger punishment?

Sorry is definitely used as an escape by many, to avoid conflict. Of course, there are times when people are genuine, but start thinking about whether or not you are truly sorry the next time you say it. Make physical contact with the person to show you are genuine. If you don't mean it, shrug and say nothing. And if this hub offended you, then I'm sorry.

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    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 6 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

    • ShwethaDabbara profile image

      Euphonos 6 years ago from India

      I do mean when i say sorry!!! But yes, a great hub :)

    • Darknlovely3436 profile image

      Annie 7 years ago from NewYork

      greAT HUB

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      WOF I agreethat many of us are contrite and feel remorse and regret. However, I still feel that the word 'sorry' is often bandied about because people feel it's expected of them to say it and deep-down they don't mean it.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      WOF I agree that many of us are contrite and feel remorse and regret. However, I still feel that the word 'sorry' is often bandied about because people feel it's expected of them to say it and deep-down they don't mean it.

    • whispers of faith profile image

      whispers of faith 7 years ago

      your hub was very beautifully written you can tell there was a lot of passion behind what you were saying. the only propblem i had with what you said is that some people can be trully apologetic for cheating. they feel remorse and regret and honestly never do it again. but the way they could show true remorse is if the confessed to it and apologized for it the minute it happened instead of waiting to get caught to confess. that makes the apology seem fake.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks Micky and Dessa!

    • dessa05 profile image

      dessa05 7 years ago from philippines

      Pole Sana! I'm sorry! or whatever language is that...If i say SORRY i mean it and I'm sincerely sorry for what I did...I truly regret if I offend people specially if I'm saying a bad words. Sometimes if we angry we can't control what we voice out. Great write!

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Pole sana! Pole sana! I say it and mean it. I truly regret disappointing many people. God bless cinyvine. Great write!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Fucsia this is the problem, sorry has become a habit and when we do mean it, it no longer means anything because we have devalued it.

    • fucsia profile image

      fucsia 7 years ago

      Many times I notice that I say sorry even when I have nothing to apologize for. This is a habit ... sometimes useful to be well accepted by the persons and have no conflicts with them. I believe we can reach a compromise with ourselves and say "I am sorry" even just for convenience and simpaty but only when it does not affect our ideas and our values and never with the people we love (with which we must always be honest)

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Agreed Writer83, but there are many people who say it for the sake of saying it, and that is part of the culture I'm currently living in.

    • writer83 profile image

      writer83 7 years ago from Cyber Space

      I think it depends on the person. If i will say sorry, it comes from my heart :)

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Cathlynn I just get tired of people who don't think before they speak, make outrageous statements or asinine accusations and then think it's all okay and smoothed over because they've said sorry. These people never learn and just keep doing it again and again thinking that saying sorry means automatic forgiveness.

    • cathylynn99 profile image

      cathylynn99 7 years ago from northeastern US

      entshuldigen sie mir. es tut mir leid. (excuse me. it does me sorrow.)some of the first german words i learned. these little social graces grease the flow of human interaction. better to say it too much than too little.

      touch to go along with it is nice if permission to touch is asked first. to physical abuse survivors, of whom there are more than you think, touch may not be pleasant or welcome.

      i agree,though, for big blunders, just the words don't cut it. actions over the long haul to make things right put "the right stuff" into the words, which are necessary, but not sufficient.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Thanks Kristen, I wonder where the whole concept of saying sorry came from?

    • KristenGrace profile image

      KristenGrace 7 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      What a great idea for a hub - I love it because it's SO true !!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Jeanie, but don't you hate it when people say sorry and you know they don't mean it?

    • jeanie.stecher profile image

      jeanie.stecher 7 years ago from Seattle

      Because we have to. And we need to. as a sign of respect and if you still wants to save the relationship. Forgive and forget.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah Pam, we have to come up with a new word for sincerley I really mean it sorry!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      I really like your article as I hadn't thought of it before but I agree with you. Children will say I'm sorry so they can get out of trouble and go do something fun. I do think it is appropriate to apologize if you accidentally run your shopping cart into someone in front of you, for some other similar situation. For things that are big deals where you really hurt someone, sorry just doesn't cut it.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Why, thanks Squiddy!

    • SquidBuilders profile image

      SquidBuilders 7 years ago

      Great page! I like the way you think!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      FP, you are right, we use them because it's expected of us, and in doing that, they lose their meaning.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 7 years ago

      I suppose the same could be said for words like 'please' and 'thank you' - we tend to use them without really thinking about them.

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      I'm in!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Okay, so we need to recondition you to cut out the habitual. I suggest a diet of chocolate for a week.

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Much of it comes from conditioning-so sometimes it is habitual. But then, I am also one who tends to be sincerely sorry when I am in the wrong.

      So I guess it's both!

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      The bolesfamily, lol never knew John Wayne said that. I do think there are times when we need to aplogise and we genuinely mean it. It's just that we've worn out the word 'sorry' and might need to invent a new one.

      Lorlie, do you just apologise out of habit or because you genuinely mean it? that's the question.

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      Hi cindyvine-I find myself apologizing automatically whenever someone seems uncomfortable in a situation. Ah, the socialization of young girls comes into play still-and I'm almost 54!

      Perhaps when I'm 74 I'll get over it. I sure hope so.

      Great hub!

    • profile image

      thebolesfamily 7 years ago

      Good hub. I tend to take John Wayne's maxim in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"--"Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness."

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Hello Hello, I guess what I'm wanting to do, is to encourage people to think if they really mean it before they say sorry.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      I agree that most of the time it isn't ment or is said half-haertedly. Especially regarding cheating. It is very rarely ment. They just trying to safe their neck. Very good article.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah Pearlie, people keep handing out worthless sorries, because the rest of us let them and don't call them on it. I also mean it when I say sorry, although there are times when I don't and my daughter is in a bad mood and I say, "I'm sorry you're having a bad day," when I'm not actually sorry because her mood is ruining my day as well.

    • Pearldiver profile image

      Rob Welsh 7 years ago from Tomorrow - In Words & NZ Time.

      Hands Up those who are genuinely sorry, when they say it.. I agree with alekhouse in regards to meaning it. However; I know exactly what your mean after having seen so many incredibly selfish things that people have done to others and felt that 'Sorry' was the only obligation that they should consider. I am more direct and tell them that they are only offering BS.. as generally the only sorrow that many have is that they were Caught!

      Excellent hub there Bokky.

      There are Sooooo Many More Sorries left to be said in this world Cindy.. I wonder why we accept them after the events also! Take Care.

    • cindyvine profile image
      Author

      Cindy Vine 7 years ago from Cape Town

      Yeah some people do mean it, I agree, but there are so many who say it because it's sort of expected of them. It just seems to make the word meaningless to me when they do that.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Sorry Cindy, but I don't quite agree. When I say I'm sorry, I mean it. Good hub though

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