Recently the Wall Street Journal explained how “Shut up!” has evolved from a insulting demand to a playful and versatile exclamation. In a related development, “I’m sorry” has mutated in the opposite direction, from apology to, well, “Shut up!”
It’s nothing new that that apologies are often no such thing. A child is commanded to “say you’re sorry” and responds with a grudging “SORRR-reee.” The politician issues a non-apology saying, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks.” This doesn’t mean, “I apologize for what I said” but rather “I wish that people hadn’t reacted badly to what I said” (because it’s causing me a lot of trouble). Still, it falls within Webster’s definition of “sorry”: “feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence.” The convicted criminal who says he’s sorry before being sentenced is probably expressing sincere regret, even if he feels no true penitence.
The first real change in the meaning of “sorry” is that it has become an all-purpose negative response. When someone answers a request or an argument with “I’m sorry,” more often than not they are merely saying no. “I’m sorry” is formulaic, not apologetic. OK, sometimes people really are sorry. And for lots of customer service personnel — who are sent to the front lines without the means to meet customers’ needs — “I’m sorry” often expresses sincere frustration, if not genuine apology.
But doesn’t it seem that “I’m sorry” is often just a quick and easy substitute for a real response? “I’m sorry” or “Sorry about that” are couched in the form of an apology only to deflect further pleading. What’s implied is: “I SAID I’m sorry, so don’t push it!” If one adds a sharp tone of voice and a heavy sigh, “I’m sorry” actually becomes a form of reproach, meaning, “How dare you make such a demand!” Indeed, “I’m sorry” can be an declaration that the issue is non-negotiable, and the debate is over: “If you don’t like it, I’m sorry!”
“Sorry” has also become a linguistic defense mechanism. (“Don’t get mad at ME.”) We’ve all seen signs headlined “SORRY!” You can post the most ridiculous or onerous regulation, or the most egregious customer abuse (“SORRY — We reserve the right to close our customer service desk without notice”). If you say you’re sorry, it’s OK, right?
Similarly, “I’m sorry” can be used to introduce the most unreasonable request (“I’m sorry, this entire job will have to be redone. It doesn’t look the way I expected”) or to note the most outrageous admission (“A couple of the degrees listed on my resume are inaccurate — sorry”). This is a preemptive strike intended to minimize the issue — just one of those things we’re all sorry for.
Language has meaning. That a term of apology has morphed into a defense mechanism — even a reproach — is an indication of something deeper. The abdication of personal responsibility. The demand for forgiveness without penitence. The belief that what I say is more important than what I do.
I don’t have to take initiative to help you. I don’t have to consider what you think or what you need. I don’t have to worry about the burden placed on you by a request or policy that’s convenient for me. I don’t have to deal honestly with you or with myself. Saying I’m sorry is enough — and if you don’t like it, I’m sorry.
In other words, Shut up!