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“I’m Sorry” Usage 3: Empathy/Pity

Usage 3: Empathy (Or Pity)

One very common usage of the phrase ‘I’m sorry,’ which I haven’t used much myself, is to express empathy or pity for someone who is experiencing something rotten. As in, “I’m sorry you have to go through that, it must be awful.” Or, “I’m sorry to hear that your father died, is there anything that I can do to help?” Personally, I’ve always felt that when we use that phrase in this way, we are mis-using it. Anytime I tell someone that I’m feeling bad, and they respond with, “I’m sorry,” I have to fight the temptation to reply, “Why? It isn’t your fault.”

While that’s a habit I’m trying to break, since I feel it would be better to take things in the spirit in which they were intended rather than objecting to the delivery, it’s still a usage I try not to use myself and would discourage others from using. Consider these two statements:

  1. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.”
  2. “Oh dear, that must be awful. I can’t imagine. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Both express roughly the same sentiment, but one of them doesn’t try to take responsibility for whatever the negative thing is. Personally, whenever I am really feeling miserable about something, and someone comes along trying to apologize for it, it irritates me. It’s like they’re trying to make me feel bad for them, and get me to tell them that it isn’t their fault really, and they don’t need to feel so bad. Forget that. They’re not the ones with cause to feel rotten, I am. Stop bloody apologizing for the trials the universe has laid on me. If you want to give me a hug or help me cope – just do it. Words can be cheap at a time like that without actions to back them up.

Consider something else about the above two statements. One of them is a shortcut. “I’m sorry” seems often used as a short-cut, with the assumption that the individual being addressed will of course understand that what we really mean is: “I wish I could help.” “I want to help.” “Is there anything I can do?” “Please cheer up.” “Can I give you a hug now?” “Do you need a hug?” “I empathize, having been through something similar.” “Ick. I totally understand.” “Wow, that sounds really difficult to deal with.” Etc. etc. etc.

Wouldn’t it be so much better to say what we actually mean?

Now let’s consider the difference between ‘Empathy’ and ‘Pity’

Merriam-Webster definition of Empathy

2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicitmanner; also : the capacity for this

Who here wants to be told that I pity them? Show of hands? Zero, really? Well, I’d agree. If what you’re trying to express is pity, then go away… your pity is no help to me at all, and it’s insulting. The original meaning of the word is merely to:

a : sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy
b : capacity to feel pity

2: something to be regretted <it’s a pity you can’t go>

But Wikipedia has something interesting to say about Pity:

Pity originally means feeling for others, particularly feelings of sadness or sorrow, and was once used in a comparable sense to the more modern words “sympathy” and “empathy“. Through insincere usage, it now has more unsympathetic connotations of feelings of superiority or condescension.[1]

Food for thought before expressing to someone, “I’m sorry” as in, “I feel sorry for you.”

Next time: Usage 4: Genuine Regret/Sorrow

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