Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who's Sorry Now?

Male friend: “I lost my job yesterday.”
Me: “I’m sorry.”
Male Friend: “It’s not your fault.”
Me: “That’s not what I meant.”

I’ve had a number of exchanges almost exactly like this one over the past year or two and I’m beginning to think the perceived meaning of the phrase “I’m sorry” has an unwitting gender bias. Yes, from my experience it appears that, in general, men ascribe a different meaning to the phrase than women do. To be more precise, the men I know allow the phrase only one meaning while women ascribe it two distinct definitions. Please bear with me while I explain my ideas to you, then you can let me know whether or not I’m just going crazy.

Wikimedia Commons - myguitarzz

When we’re small, our parents teach us to say “I’m sorry” when we have harmed someone, accidentally or on purpose. The meaning is clear: I regret what I have done. I apologize. Not that the average three-year-old necessarily regrets whacking their sibling with a toy, but eventually they understand the other person’s point of view and generate sincere apologies.

This meaning of “I’m sorry” follows us throughout our lives. When I bump into someone as I’m rounding the corner in the grocery story, I automatically use that phrase. Every English-speaking adult I know says “I’m sorry” when they mean “I apologize.” There is no confusion here.

The problem is that some people attach a second meaning to those words. It’s the second meaning that I employed in the sample conversation above, and it’s this second meaning that many men apparently don’t recognize. In this case, “I’m sorry” means “I sympathize, I feel your pain.”

Within my hearing, the most common use of this second meaning occurs around the unfortunate circumstance of the death of loved ones. In this sort of situation, I hear women say “I’m sorry” and in that situation whoever they’re talking to will usually understand their meaning as “I sympathize.” I have occasionally (OK, rarely) heard men use the same words in the same situation and the recipient of their comments also understands this second meaning. But outside this narrow circumstance, the sympathy meaning of “I’m sorry” seems to disappear from men’s mental dictionaries and they automatically ascribe the apology meaning to the phrase, resulting in my having to explain myself, as in the sample conversation at the top of this post.

Is it just me? Women, has this ever happened to you? Men, do you assume “I’m sorry” means “I apologize” or have I just managed to experience an unusual slice of the population that uses the phrase this way?

In thinking back over the past few years, I can’t remember a single conversation in which a man has used the phrase “I’m sorry” to mean “I sympathize.” Of course, men do sympathize with others, but in my experience they express their meaning with words such as “That’s awful” or “That totally sucks.”

“I’m sorry” is such a reflex response for me in so many situations, I expect it would be hard to retrain myself to use different phrases. But I’m seriously considering switching to “I apologize” and “I sympathize” simply so I don’t have to explain myself so often. What do you think?