Ladyguide: How to Say You’re Sorry

Three and a half years ago, I got cheated on. I moved past it. I’ve since realized that it was a bad relationship that destroyed my self confidence. I am so happy with the way everything turned out, and am actually grateful that it happened. I was meant for better things. Of course, those feelings subsided when I received an e-mail from the “Cheated With” recently. Old wounds were opened and I felt sick, sad, broken, and alone all over again.

And it’s not because I’m angry; I haven’t been angry over what happened for years. It’s because every time this gets rehashed, I have never heard a single damn apology.

No one has just told me they’re sorry. No one has offered me any responsibility for any of their actions. I’ve gotten a lot of “It just happened,” “You should have known it was going on,” and even an “I wish I hadn’t told all those people you were a monster.” (No, for real. That was a thing.) But not one, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

The e-mail I received was worded as an apology, but it was really more of an accusation. It hurt, realizing what had actually been happening and what had been said about me. It was not an apology. It was a selfish way for the other person to make herself feel better. And while I wanted to smash plates and drink wine, being productive is a much better use of all this confusion. (Of course, wine is an excellent band-aid. I heartily recommend wine.) So I would like to take this time to teach everyone the all-important lesson of how to say, “I’m sorry.”


First, should you even say you’re sorry? If everything happened a long time ago, you should probably let bygones be bygones. After all, at this point, your actions are probably metaphorical water under the proverbial bridge. As someone pointed out to me, “Just because a wound is healed doesn’t mean the scar isn’t there, and if someone reopens the wound or points out the scar to make herself feel better, then she’s just being selfish.” Time may heal all wounds, but that doesn’t give you the right to poke at those wounds a little bit and see how stretchy the scar is.

Another thing to consider is whether you have a continuing relationship with that person. If you work together or have mutual friends, it is probably best that you apologize. However, if you are unlikely to ever see one another again, leave it be. There’s no tension there, and therefore that person probably doesn’t care if you ever apologize. If you never see one another, there’s no pain there to deal with. Let it go. Apologies are not ever about you or your feelings, they’re about repairing relationships and admitting to wrongdoings. If there is no relationship or nobody cares about your wrongdoings anymore, LET IT GO.

Finally, are you actually even sorry? Sure, there are times that you have to apologize for the sake of group dynamic or workplace environment, but for the most part, don’t apologize if you’re not sorry. If you honestly don’t believe you did anything wrong, don’t apologize. Other people can recognize sincerity, and if you’re not actually sorry, the other person will know and feel worse. Guaranteed.


Now that you’ve decided you should apologize, or probably shouldn’t, but are going to anyway, it’s time to discuss how to apologize.

First, the less said, the better. Any time you qualify an apology, you qualify the regret you feel. “I’m sorry I told everyone you were perpetually late and it’s really annoying, but you really should have just taken a cab,” is not an apology. It is a Bitch Move. It’s pretending to apologize while simultaneously making a power play. Apologies are not power plays. Apologies are about humbling yourself and saying you were wrong.

That’s not to say you can’t explain your actions. I recently offended a colleague in an entirely accidental manner. When she brought her concerns to me the next time I saw her, I explained that I was sorry, and it was my fault for being a goofball and not thinking before I spoke and that my intention was never to embarrass her. If there’s a rule here, it’s “and, not but.” Anytime you say “but” you’re making an excuse. There are no excuses in apologies, except to say, “excuse me.”

Second, know what you’re sorry for and say so. Are you sorry for throwing out your cubiclemate’s tuna and pretending it wasn’t you? Or are you sorry that you didn’t just tell your co-worker that you hate the smell of tuna and would appreciate it if she would eat her tuna in the lunchroom instead of at her desk? No substitutions!

Finally, don’t try to make yourself out to be a victim, too. Even if you feel you were also taken advantage of, that’s not the point of an apology. Later, after all hurt feelings have died down, you can open that discussion topic if and when it feels right. For now, just take responsibility for your own actions.

Apologies are an important realm of the etiquette world. If politeness is all about forging relationships, then saying you’re sorry is the key to repairing those relationships once they’ve been forged. And for next week, something a little less “wounded bird” and a lot more fun, I promise. (And a lady always keeps her promises.)

Got an etiquette question? I’ve got an etiquette answer. Leave it in the comments or email me at

By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

7 replies on “Ladyguide: How to Say You’re Sorry”

I hate receiving apologies because they are so often not anywhere near what I consider to be an apology. Now, I’m not saying that everything needs an apology, but in my mind, if one is warranted, then it requires at least two parts: an acknowledgement of what happened that owns up to the action, and an action plan on avoiding it in the future. “I took the last Diet Coke” won’t cut it. “I shouldn’t have taken the last Diet Coke,” well, no kidding. “I’m sorry I took the last Diet Coke; I’ll go to the store and get some more.” Yay!

Most of the time I’ll either get the mere statement/acknowledgement of what was done, which is not really an apology and is typically more about the benefit of the apologizer – or the dreaded passive-aggressive non-apology that is worse than if the person just admitted that they weren’t sorry.

…of course, I have been without a car or sodas for days now, so not the best examples…

 Apologies are not ever about you or your feelings, they’re about repairing relationships and admitting to wrongdoings. If there is no relationship or nobody cares about your wrongdoings anymore, LET IT GO.

I am a great believer in letting things go, but I think that apologies can be about the person doing the apologising. It can be an important way of acknowleding whatever happened, and while there has to be acknowledgement in order to let go, I think there’s something significant of acknowledging the wrongdoing with the other party. What happened involved both the person doing wrong and person harmed, and I think impact can go both ways. Perhaps that isn’t something that can be applied in every situation, but I don’t think apologies are about absolutes either.

Apologies are about humbling yourself and saying you were wrong.

With this, yes, apologies are about admitting wrongdoing in some shape or form. I don’t think they are inherently about being humble. Acknowledgement of a wrongdoing isn’t right if it’s done without sincerity, but neither is being humble necessarily always necessary or appropriate.

I guess, for me, apologies are different in every situation. At least, that’s how I see it.


I agree the impact can go both ways, but if there is no relationship, nor any potential for one, then it’s probably better for all involved to let it go. In that case, it may be better to look at your actions and say to yourself, “Yep, I screwed that up,” and to consciously avoid making the same mistake again. Also, I would argue that an apology is an inherently humbling experience, since, as humans we dislike admitting we were in the wrong. Being humble hardly requires dressing in sackcloth and smearing ashes on your face.

And all apologies are different because all situations and people are different. General guidelines, here. Maybe I should write a disclaimer in legalese! :)

Possibly it is better to let it go, but again, I feel every situation is different and even in stretched circumstances, apologising can be appropriate, even if not entirely pleasant. Acknowledgement can be so important. As for apologies being inherently humbling, I don’t agree. To be humble doesn’t, indeed, require sackcloth and ashes, but neither does an insincere apology require much effort. I believe an apology can be humble, I don’t believe apologies are inherently humble. An apology is an acknowledgement. Being humble is something that whilst it can go hand in hand with an apology, isn’t a requirement. At least, looking at definitions, I see them as separate. Again, an indicator that apologies aren’t a black and white experience. Those are, at least, my feeling on it all.

I definitely believe in apologizing for hurt feelings, even if you really meant to hurt them. But you should apologize for being a jerk and saying it, not for them feeling bad about something that was meant to make them feel bad!

Sometimes that backfires, of course. Occasionally, I will say something really, really mean and later apologize by saying I was sorry and I shouldn’t have said it. He’ll ask (because of course he knows by now) if I really meant it, and  I’m forced to qualify that I’m sorry I said it because it hurt his feelings and I should have kept the sentiment in my own head, but of course I meant it because why else would I have said it?

There is a big difference between “I’m sorry what I said/did hurt you” and “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.” In the first instance, the apologizer is acknowledging that their actions caused pain, even if they don’t think they did anything wrong. My experience with the second is that it means “You are totally overreacting, I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m tired of fighting so I will just apologize because you’re mad at me.” I totally agree with apologizing for hurt feelings, because I can usually look back and see that I was mad and it either didn’t need to be said out loud, or I could have found a better way to say it if I had wanted to.

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