When and how do I say sorry?

You ever had that “Ah! When and how do I say sorry” moment?

Bad day at the office — image by

We’ve all had a bad day at the office, on the shop floor or the ward, sometimes with the kids or the family, or that insensitive friend, when we just want to take someone’s head off their shoulders. Yes?

I’m guessing you didn’t literally take anyone’s head off, but maybe you raised your voice, hurled some insults, gave some dirty looks, tuts and sighs? Perhaps you stomped around, bashed your laptop shut, slammed a few drawers or doors for effect? Once you’d taken a few deep breaths, had a cup of tea or a glass of wine, slumped into your car seat or relaxed in a warm bath, you calmed down.

Then it’s Ah! When and how do I say sorry? Let’s find out more:

Insincere or unnecessary apologising

The Guardian (2019) said “In Britain, we over-apologise out of politeness.” and we do. It comes easily. But some apologies are totally unnecessary and often insincere i.e. we say sorry when someone bumps into us or we say to our waiter “I’m sorry, but my food is cold.” We call work and say “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel well.”

Constant apologies, particularly at work might undermine someone’s confidence in you; in a meeting you say “Sorry, I’d like to interrupt you.” Why apologise? Or when you have to deliver an important but boring directive to your team i.e. “Sorry, but we have to complete audits by……….” Just tell them the message “We have the annual audits to be completed by…….”, which sounds way more confident and you needn’t be sorry about directives from someone or somewhere else.

“I’m sorry” are only just words —

Some people just apologise to relieve their own guilt or shame at the way they behaved and are not necessarily genuinely upset by the hurt they caused the other party. Others might apologise to escape punishment like someone in court hoping to get a lesser penalty.

Even our politicians and world leaders apologies are carefully worded and often insincere. They’re seen only to be protecting their image rather than concern about their message.

A genuine apology

It’s generally more difficult to say sorry when you actually have something to apologise for. Psychology Today (2016) said “A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilized people. It has the power to restore damaged relationships, be they on a small scale, between two people, such as intimates, or on a grand scale, between groups of people, even nations. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.”

When to say sorry

  • Immediately, if possible but at least at the earliest opportunity. It’s unfair on the other person or group of people and it only drags out your ensuing feelings of possibly anxiety or upset at causing hurt in someone you care about or respect.
  • When it’s your fault. Sometimes if you really have done something wrong, it truly needs an apology. And in those situations, by all means, take responsibility! Own it!
  • Evoking tears or other distress in others tells us that we’ve overstepped the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the injured party. If it’s a friend, someone else we care about or respect, we don’t want to alienate them, lose their friendship, end the relationship or lose respect at work. We know we have to come up with some kind of apology to repair the damage and get the unpleasant matter behind us all.

I think we’re all aware how maddening it is, not to get an apology from someone who’s hurt us.

How to say sorry

How to improve your communication
— image by new-edu resources
  • Show genuine remorse over your actions by, and this is important, telling them first “I apologise” or I’m sorry”.
  • Genuinely and freely, not waiting to be asked; recognising the damage/hurt you’ve caused. You might say something like “I’m really sorry I said/did that. I can see how hurt/upset you are.” or “I apologise for hurting your feelings and I want to fix this.”
  • Show and sound like you mean it – your body movement, your eyes, your hands, your tone of voice. You need to show the other person that you really do understand and care about their feelings and their experience of what happened. Ask them their take on the situation and how it made them feel.
  • Take responsibility for your words, actions or behaviour – admit that you were rude, wrong, ignorant or downright spiteful
  • Repair the damage – make amends. Tell them how you’re going to fix things “I’ve heard and understand what you’ve said and I’ll make changes for the future.” Ask how them how to, if necessary “What can I do to make it right/better/change things?”
  • Promise that it won’t happen again and you need to keep this promise. The definition of a promise “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified.” Make the promise concrete and you’re sure you can commit to the action or expectation.

How not to say sorry

Meredith Walters
  • “I’ve already said sorry.” or “You know I’m sorry.” or “My dad said I had to say sorry, so……….” These kinds of apologies just cheapen whatever follows and if someone tells you to apologise, you’re giving their apology, not yours.
  • Don’t make excuses for your behaviour/words – “I was only trying to tell you…….”
  • Don’t try to justify your words/behaviours – “I was just trying to help you.” and “I was just playing devil’s advocate.” “I was just joking.” You’re trying to tell them that how they felt wasn’t important cos ‘it was just for fun.’ Really? Because, it obviously wasn’t fun for the hurt person.
  • Don’t use the “you know” kind of apologies like “Oh you know I’m like a bull in a china shop.” or “you know I forget sometimes.” You’re trying to belittle their hurt or their experience as though they shouldn’t be upset.
  • The same goes for “I Know” apologies like “Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have……” It’s like “Well, why did you then?” and you’re not really owning up to the damage you’ve caused to the other person.
  • Bullying apologies are dreadful too, like “Okay, I get it – sorry!” and “Drop it now, it’s done – sorry!” or “Sorrrry – duh!” with the eyeroll.
Any questions?image by 123rf.com

I’m sure there are many more ways to apologise or ways of how not to apologise. I hope some of these points help and I’m open to more suggestions or your comments. What was the last insincere apology you gave or received?

You might find the following posts useful too:

How to improve your verbal communication skills?


Author: mentalhealth360.uk

Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

13 thoughts on “When and how do I say sorry?”

  1. Obligatory or insincere apologies irk me. It takes all meaning out of them for me. The donor constantly said sorry for stuff that nothing to do with him. Sorry, it’s raining. Sorry, you have a headache. Sorry, traffic was bad. BUT when I purposely said, “You were rude, that truly hurt my feelings…” He’d sputter how I took it out of context and I was making a big deal out of nothing, he was joking, I just have no sense of humor…He’d never apologize when it needed to be done.
    I look back and wonder how I didn’t take off his head with some sharp implement ;P

    I’m not guilt free and I try to apologize when I realize I’ve misstepped. Problematic for me with my lacking social skills is I am not always quick on the uptake to recognize a social faux paux. I apparently need some sort of self help book on how to read social cues properly.

    1. That’s the way for some of the men I’ve known too unfortunately. And yes, been there – sharp implements – only the thoughts tho lol, Otherwise I’d be sitting rotting in a prison by now.
      Ah, social cues, I’ll be coming to that shortly. Unfortunately, I overcompensate here and tend to pick on on everyone’s feelings very quickly. x

  2. In Canada we also do a lot of superficial apologizing out of politeness, and while that has a role as a sort of social lubricant, a genuine apology is a very different thing. I think the point you made about recognizing the hurt that was caused is hugely important in making an effective apology.

  3. Well I totally agree with you but sometimes I find people who are not at fault who were the ones hurt but still apologize, as if it was their fault that they felt hurt and it feels so bad to see someone who’s not at fault , who should be the one to accept apology , maybe due to treatment they received in past from others , apologizing . If you have had come across someone or something similar then a post on it would be really helpful

  4. This can be a very tricky issue. I often used to over-apologize all the time, which I started to notice annoyed people and sometimes made a not-that-big issue into a bigger one. Now I try to hold myself back unless I can see that someone is hurt or inconvenienced by my actions. I’m also trying to learn to be better at receiving apologies. When emotions get riled up, it can be easy to want the other person to be uncomfortable for a while, but accepting the apology and their attempt to make amends is really better than either party sitting and stewing.

    1. I think perhaps we’ve all had that irritating over-apologising at some point. And now, like you, I apologise only when truly necessary — if I think I’ve offended anyone.

      Accepting apologies can sometimes be like accepting complements. I was often too quick with “Oh no worries, it doesn’t matter. But now I’ll accept a genuine heartfelt apology, say “thank you, I appreciate that.”

  5. Very educative post, learned a lot. So glad I discovered your blog, and managed to learn new things.
    Keep posting informative articles, it is really helpful.

    Best regards,
    Dinesen Dencker

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