Sorry: Another Difficult, but Necessary, Word

by Craig Thompson on August 19, 2016

Sorry!

Last month, I wrote about the difficulties of saying goodbye, something faced over again by those living overseas. Today I’d like to discuss another word that can come up during times of transition: Sorry. It, too, is hard to say, at least in the right way.

(The following is adapted from “Sorry: No Ifs, Sos, or Buts,” originally posted at ClearingCustoms.net.)

R is for Reconciliation

When it comes to transitions between countries, it can be easy to feel as if we’re drowning in all the emotions, responsibilities, and stressors. That’s why David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, in their well-known book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, talk about building a “RAFT” to keep your head above water. The four parts of that raft are

  • Reconciliation
  • Affirmation
  • Farewells, and
  • Think Destination

“Reconciliation,” say the authors, “includes both the need to forgive and to be forgiven.” And this forgiveness is especially important preceding a move across time zones and oceans.

When transitions approach, those leaving—and those staying—have a small window of opportunity for a face-to-face healing of wounded relationships, a window that gets smaller as the departure gets closer. That’s why apologies become more and more necessary, even at a time when they may seem more and more difficult.

But simply deciding to say “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, because not all apologies are created equal. In fact, we live in the age of the “non-apology apology.” When you say, “I’m sorry,” do you add on any qualifiers? Do extra words reveal your true feelings?

Or do your words of remorse stand on their own? Do you say Sorry, with no ifs, sos, or buts?

No Ifs

The “If” apology is probably the most popular way to get out of a full confession. It goes something like this: “I’m sorry if my choice of words offended you.” What that says is “If my words offended you, then you must be very thin skinned. You should not be offended by what I said, because it wasn’t really offensive. But because you are upset, I would like you to know that had I known I was dealing with someone as sensitive as you, I would not have said what I said . . in your presence.” When this kind of apology is given, is there any real doubt in the speaker’s mind that someone is offended, hurt, etc.?

No Sos

Sos aren’t usually spoken—unless we’re particularly brazen—but they appear when we require something in return for our apologies. If they were actually to emerge from the recesses of our hidden motives and be vocalized, we might say, “I’m sorry . . . so now I’ll listen while you tell me there’s nothing to apologize for,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you need to stop blaming me,” or “I’m sorry . . . so you’re sorry too, right? (I’m more than willing to meet you halfway. That is the way it works, isn’t it?)”

No Buts

By definition, but means that what comes second is going to contrast with what came first. Sometimes the I’m sorry is just a way to softly introduce the “truth”: “I’m sorry, but you had it coming to you.” The but can also announce excuses: “I’m sorry, but I was really tired.” It can spread around the blame: “I’m sorry, but I’m not the only guilty party here.” Or it can even pass the buck on to all of humanity: “I’m sorry, but anyone else in my situation would have done the same thing. (And any reasonable person would agree.)”

It Ain’t Easy

It’s difficult to apologize without tacking on a weasel word or two, to just let our “I’m sorry” resonate in silence. I should know, as I’m guilty of using every kind of disclaimer above myself, several times. I’ve also left apologies unsaid.

So what keeps the words from coming out the right way? Maybe it’s habit. It’s easy to fall into old patterns, in particular when we’re under stress. And few things are more stressful than voicing an apology that’s been a long time coming. If you don’t want it to come out wrong, you might need to practice beforehand.

Maybe it’s self preservation. A real apology leaves us truly vulnerable. We have to drop our guard and be willing to take our licks.

Or maybe it’s because of the word sorry itself, coming from the Old English sarig, meaning “full of sorrow.” Today, sorry can range from a deep, sorrowful regret over something said or done to a simple usage that means “excuse me,” such as when we’re walking through a crowded hallway. And we also use it to express our sympathy for someone else’s sorrow, as in “I’m sorry for your loss.” I think it’s this last usage, in the context of an apology, that often get’s us in trouble. As with several examples above, our words sound less like “I’m sorry that I wronged you” and more like “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Regardless of why it’s hard, it’s worth the effort. We need to mend relationships. We need to bring healing to our own hearts. We need to do it as soon as possible, so we don’t have to try to work it in at the airport.

And one more thing. There’s no guarantee that the person on the other end of an apology will forgive us. In fact, the deepest apologies come when we don’t think we deserve to be forgiven. And the greatest relief comes when we receive forgiveness anyway.

What’s love got to do with it?

Seeking reconciliation is an act of love. Jesus, the greatest example of love, tells us that harmony with our brothers and sisters is so important that we should leave an offering on the altar to go and make things right. It’s one of the ways to show our love for each other and to show our love for God.

Of course, there are two sides to full reconciliation—the apology and the forgiveness—and before your goodbyes, you may be called on to express both. In the same sermon, Jesus tells his followers just how necessary forgiveness is, saying, “[I]f you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (NIV)

This is not the way of the world, nor is it popular in many, if any, of the cultures we may find ourselves in.

When the American Film Institute came out with its list of “100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time,” number 13 was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (right between “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “The stuff that dreams are made of”). The line is spoken at the end of Love Story by Ryan O’Neal, playing the part of Oliver Barrett. In another movie, two years later, Barbara Streisand says the same thing to O’Neal in the comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” O’Neal’s character, Howard Bannister, answers drily, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

I agree, Dr. Bannister. I agree.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009

[photo: “More Fun with Sorry,” by Erin Kohlenberg, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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