Some Phrases To Avoid When Making An Apology (And What To Say Instead)


We’ve already covered the importance of an apology. That’s not exactly a controversial stance. We all recognize apologizing is a good skill! However, in my opinion, a bad apology is almost as bad as none at all, and boy are there a lot of people giving bad apologies. I’ve noticed a few phrases that are commonly used in apologies, but that don’t really do much to convey you’re actually sorry. Here are some to avoid:

  • “I didn’t do something to upset you, did I?” This and variations of this phrasing presumes the asker did nothing wrong, and puts the askee in an accusatory position. Either they have to say “no, it’s fine” (and anyone who is bad at confrontation knows how easy it is to say it’s fine when it’s not) or do the hard job of spelling out exactly why they are upset. It would be great if everyone was better at that, but most of us don’t like being so explicit because we don’t want to hurt feelings. So if you did something wrong and notice you upset someone, own up to it. Say “I’m sorry I upset you” or “What I said was disrespectful and I apologize,” or something equally explicit. And if you genuinely don’t know what you did, admit you don’t know and ask why.
  • “I’m sorry you’re offended/if it came off that way.” Phrasing like this is what you see every time a celebrity offers a half-hearted apologetic press release after telling a racist joke, and it’s easy to see right through it. It conveys you’re not actually sorry about what you said or did, just that someone else reacted badly to it. Misinterpretations happen, but not nearly as often as this phrase is utilized. Instead, apologize for the actual action, like “I’m sorry I said [X], I understand now how offensive it is.”
  • “I didn’t mean it like that.” This is a tricky one. Sometimes an explanation as to why you did the thing you’re apologizing for is necessary, and it’ll turn out to have all been a misunderstanding. But often explaining why you did or said something that upset someone just makes it seem like you’re trying to avoid blame. It doesn’t matter whether you meant to be mean or whether you thought you were being funny if what you said hurt someone. Instead, elaborate on that initial phrase by saying something like “I didn’t mean it, but I know that’s no excuse, and I’m genuinely sorry I upset you.”
  • Apologizing when you’re not sorry. Maybe you’re not actually sorry for what you did, and are only apologizing to try to smooth things over. The point of an apology is that you mean it, so just saying “sorry” when you’re not isn’t worth it to anyone. Instead, try to see if there’s a way to smooth things over in a way that doesn’t involve an apology. Did you get into a fight about politics? Say “I know we may not agree on this issue, but I want you to know I still care for you and respect you, and I’ll try not to bring it up again.” Is someone trying to make you apologize for something you don’t feel sorry for? Say “I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, but I want to understand why you’re upset.”
  • “Am I forgiven now?” Apologies are not transactional. You do not give one for immediate absolution, you give one for the benefit of the aggrieved party. Asking whether or not you’re forgiven forces the hand of the person you’re asking, because let’s face it, saying “no, you’re not forgiven yet” sounds mean. Instead, well, don’t say anything. If you’ve apologized you’ve done what you can, and it’s up to the person you hurt to decide if and when you’re on good terms again.

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