How To Say “Sorry” Without Saying “Sorry”

Recently I’d arranged to meet a contact for lunch. He’d sorted the reservation for 1pm and sent me a copy of the confirmation, which I added to my calendar.

A couple of days prior we were emailing about final arrangements and he ended his message “See you at 12.30pm”. I double checked the reservation, then replied to flag the 30 minutes difference between what he’d booked and what he’d just said, so I could be sure to arrive on time.

His reply was a masterclass in saying “sorry” without saying “sorry”:

“Thanks J, you’re right of course. The reservation says 1300 so see you at that time.”

What I love about his response is it’s totally proportionate to his mistake; it was a low-level error that deserved a low-level acknowledgement.

Plus it avoided the word “sorry”, the over-use of which is rife in the UK, but which has the unfortunate effect of chipping away at the credibility of your personal brand. (If you’re always saying “sorry” it suggests you’re always doing things wrong.)

So if you also want to become a master at saying “sorry” without saying “sorry”, here are my three top tips:

Tip #1: What do you have to be sorry about?

Just as my contact did, the first thing you want to decide if you think you might need to say “sorry” is how big a deal is it?

On a sliding scale from ‘nobody was inconvenienced in the slightest’ to ‘that caused a shitload of hassle for someone else’ where would your action sit?

If it’s on the low end of the scale, ask yourself if an apology is even necessary. If it’s at the higher end, ask yourself what sort of apology is appropriate – which leads us on to Tip #2…

Tip #2: What wording is required?

The joy of the English language is just how many ways there are to say the same thing – each with its own subtle nuance. I’m a huge fan of a thesaurus for weighing up those nuances to exactly match the sentiment required – which will differ the further up the sliding scale you go.

For instance, my contact’s action of getting the time wrong is a minor issue (it was caught before anyone was inconvenienced) and his words match that. By using the phrase “You’re right of course” he’s insinuated he’s wrong, without the need to say he’s wrong. (An alternative might be “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”)

Let’s take it up a notch

Moving up the scale slightly, let’s say I’d turned up at 1pm and he’d been there since 12.30pm, thinking I was in the wrong and getting miffed at me in the process. If I’d pointed out his error when I arrived, different wording would have been called for.

For instance, “I recognise it was my mistake I was early” takes accountability for what’s still a pretty small infraction – after all, he was the one inconvenienced. (An alternative might be “It’s my fault this didn’t go as I’d planned.”)

Moving up the scale further, let’s say I’d turned up at 12.30pm but he’d rocked up at 1pm. Now I’m getting miffed, sitting there for 30 minutes, double checking his last message that shows in black and white the earlier time (forgetting the one with the reservation attached).

The inconvenience has moved from him to me, so that should be recognised. “I want to apologise for putting the wrong time in my last email – I appreciate you waiting” would be suitable, or “It’s my fault you’ve had to wait – I must apologise”.

Now a bit further

Finally, let’s take the scenario to the ‘shitload of hassle’ end of the scale.

Not only have I turned up at 12.30pm, as per his last message, having left at 8.30am in the morning and travelled four hours to get to the venue, but he’s completely forgotten our arrangement and is – as I’ve found out from his out of office message – currently on holiday abroad.

Now’s the time for the “S” word

As soon as that doozy comes to light, he’d better be saying “sorry” – perhaps even with some added emphasis such as, “I was mortified to find out I’d forgotten our lunch. I want to say a huge sorry for the hassle I put you through.” The wording reflects the size of the issue – and for cock ups this big, I’d also recommend adding Tip #3…

Tip #3: What are you going to do about it?

In the final scenario, an offer to buy me lunch when we next meet, as payback for the trouble caused, would be an obvious addition to the apology. But it’s also good practice to show that you’ve learnt from the mistake by saying what you’ll do to stop it happening again.

Maybe “I’m going to ask my PA to double check my diary for me in future” or “I’m going to make sure I ring you the day before we’re next due to meet so I can cross-check details” or “I’m going to try and get some proper sleep because my brain is definitely addled”.

Next time you’re about to apologise stop and check who has been inconvenienced and to what extent – then craft your response accordingly. If “sorry” is what’s required, go ahead and use it. But if a tweak of your language can better fit the situation, be sure to take a minute to follow those tips. And if you have any alternatives you like to use, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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5 responses to “How To Say “Sorry” Without Saying “Sorry””

  1. Colin D Smith says:

    Love it, Jennifer, something I had not thought about.

    I must say I roared at the “Now a bit further” paragraph…when you added, ‘currently on holiday abroad’.

    Always learning…thank you for sharing your thinking.


    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      The contact in question would never have done something as bad as booking to have lunch then going on holiday.

      However, I had this exact thing happen to me with someone else who I’d arranged to have dinner with when I was in Aberdeen on business (he worked in the oil industry). I waited ages for him to turn up, as we’d agreed. After half an hour I rang him and he said, “Oh, I decided to take the day off, so I’m currently at home in Inverness.” He didn’t even apologise! That’s taking ‘not saying sorry’ to a whole other level.

  2. Tony O says:

    Some people use the word “sorry” almost as a reflex to provide punctuation to their sentence. When I saw the title I was worried at first that it was going to be advocating “sorry, not sorry” as is often used by selected politicians to avoid apologising when actually they should. I know better of you- a great constructive way forward. Excellent advice as usual. Thank you!

    • Jennifer Holloway says:

      The day I am a proponent of any method of political scrutiny dodging, you have my blessing to give me a slap in the face Tony!

  3. Helen B says:

    Really useful piece thank you!

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