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:




About cindyricksgers

I am an artist. I live on an island in northern Lake Michigan, USA. I have two grown daughters, four strong, smart and handsome grandsons and one beautiful, intelligent and charming granddaughter. I live with two spoiled dogs. I love walking in the woods around my home, reading, writing and playing in my studio.

7 responses »

  1. I think people just don’t know what to say when their loved ones die. It’s surreal—a blur. Thank you is all that is necessary.
    For the people who tell me about a bad week,etc… I just say “Ugh” lol.

    • Yes, and when you’ve lost someone, those heartfelt “I’m sorry”s really do help. Yes, “ugh”, or “bummer” or “that really sucks” get the same point across…and are maybe more understood as empathy these days. Thanks for reading, and for your comments!

  2. Regarding a death it’s hard to know what to say. There are so many clichés and none of them mean anything anymore. I think the best thing one can say in that situation is something like, “you’re in my prayers/thoughts.” When it comes to other things not so horrific, well, “sucks to be you,” can be a sign of empathy and also bring a little humor into the conversation. I’ve also learned that saying “that’s too bad,” is received better than “I’m sorry.”

    I was an “I’m sorry” person for a long time and changed my ways when people criticized my intent. I’m sorry if they don’t know what I mean. 🙂

    • Yes, I’m thinking I’m going to have to alter what i say, just because people don’t seem to “get it” anymore. In my recent experience with death, I know a big hug and a genuine “I’m sorry,” means the world.

  3. Hello All,I’m a customer service rep and often time we get queried for not showing/saying “apologies and empathy” please what are the best phrase to use that wouldn’t make me sound as if I’m admitting fault? Quality assurance angel

    • First of all, do not say “Apologies.” Apology directly references some type of wrong-doing on your part, and has nothing to do with empathy, Beyond that, I’m afraid I’m at a lose, as my usual “I’m sorry that happened” seem to be forever misconstrued. Thanks for reading, and for your comments!

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