I'm Sorry, I'm Not Apologizing, OK?

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is author of the book "I Only Say This Because I Love You" (Random House, May 2001), which has a chapter on apologies

It struck many Americans as verging on the absurd that the return of the spy plane crew hinged on protracted negotiations with China over the wording of a (possible) apology.

If you think the subtle differences among carefully chosen expressions of remorse are an arcane linguistic quirk of an ancient and hypersensitive exotic culture, think again. We all play similar linguistic games every day when we negotiate apologies in English.

The word "sorry" sits right on that fine line between regret and fault. Someone who says "I'm sorry" to a family member at a funeral is rarely taking responsibility for the death. But many people try adroit verbal maneuvers to avoid saying "I'm sorry" when there is a possibility these words could be heard as an admission of fault. And the reluctance can start early. A 3 1/2-year-old child told his mother that he did not like Yom Kippur--the Hebrew Day of Atonement, when Jews take stock of the past year and are required to ask forgiveness of anyone they have hurt. His mother had never heard him say he didn't like a holiday. She asked why, and was astonished by his reply: "Because you have to say you're sorry."

The way you say "sorry"--and whether you stop there--is often the key to whether it works as an apology. If I say, "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings," I evince regret, but only for how you felt, not for what I did. "I'm sorry--OK?" doesn't work because adding "OK?" cancels out the apology. It seems to say, "Are you satisfied now?"

English speakers have many resources to try to get credit for an apology without saying the words. A friend once wrote, "I guess I wasn't much help" when he had caused me inconvenience. (I took this as an apology and moved on.) "Say it with flowers" is a time-honored way of making amends without words. Some years ago, a National Public Radio spot reported about a service called the Apology Line. For a fee, a caller would apologize on a client's behalf.

Why are we so reluctant to just say, "I'm sorry"--and say it like we mean it? Because admitting fault weakens our position. That's why our insurance companies admonish us never to apologize after a fender-bender. Even the iMac computer is programmed to intone, when something goes wrong, "It's not my fault."

One reason many of us try to find words to show remorse without apologizing is that the demand for an apology seems like a degradation ritual. In the movie "The Kid," a man gets to go back to a scene from his childhood and redo it. Watching his 8-year-old self get beaten by a bully, he recalls that he was pushed around for the next eight years. To change this fate, the adult man encourages his child self to fight back--and win. Sitting astride his vanquished foe, the child orders the bully: "Apologize!" When the formerly tough boy utters the words "I'm sorry," his defeat is sealed.

Human relations--both public and private--are a complex negotiation of showing concern for each other while trying to avoid being placed in a one-down position. Apologies are a powerful, risky and necessary part of these negotiations--in any language.

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