Daily Archives: October 22, 2017

Empathy versus Apology



It’s still okay, it seems, when confronted with a death, to say, “I’m so sorry.” The usual response is as expected: a somber nod, a murmured “Thank you.”

In my experience, that’s no longer the case in most other circumstances. Someone tells me of a minor frustration, a bad experience or a maddening encounter. I say, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I’m sorry you’re having such a rough hour [week/year/go of it]” or simply, “I’m so sorry.”

That, too often, causes a look ranging from mild surprise to incredulity to irritation, and one of several responses:

“Well, it’s not your fault!”

You didn’t do it.”

“I wasn’t blaming you!”

I realize that.

I was not apologizing; I was empathizing. I know I wasn’t the cause of your pain, frustration or anger; I am not blaming myself. Likely, I have been in your situation, or one very similar, and I understand how you feel. I am sorry you’re going through it. Empathy, not apology. It’s the difference between “I’m sorry you’re having car trouble” and “I’m sorry I wrecked your car.”

“I’m sorry you’re having a hard day” = empathy.

“I’m sorry for giving you such a hard time” = apology.

Do I need to be clearer? Is “I’m sorry” not enough? Do I look guilty? What would make a person think I am blaming myself? When I approach someone who has had a death in the family, and say, “I’m sorry,” it has never been countered with, “Why? You didn’t kill him!” Have we forgotten about how to express shared feelings?

Maybe, from now on, I’ll try something different. If someone tells me of a minor frustration, a bad experience or a maddening encounter, this will be my response: