The Non-Apology

There’s something that has always bothered me – and I see it quite a lot – and that’s the “non-apology.” If you’re not familiar with it, it is when you apologize, but not for what you actually did. The classic example is “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

In a non-apology, you start off like an apology with an “I’m sorry” or similar, but then you reflect the blame back on whomever you’re making the apology to – as if they are the one who did something worth apologizing for, not you. You’re not saying “I’m sorry for the thing I did,” you’re saying “I’m sorry you had the reaction to the thing I did,” or more accurately, “It’s too bad that you had that reaction to the thing I did.

Some people make non-apologies deliberately to avoid ever taking responsibility for anything, but it is also easy to make them by mistake if you’re not paying attention to yourself. The best way to tell if an apology is a non-apology is to replace the “I’m sorry” with “It’s too bad.”

For example, let’s say you ate someone else’s ice cream – something anyone would naturally get upset over. Let’s look at the ways you could apologize for it.

The classic non-apology in this case would be “I’m sorry you’re upset,” which has the unspoken meaning of “I’m sorry that you’re upset that I ate your ice cream.” When you spell it out fully like this, it starts to become obvious that you’re not apologizing, you’re just regretting the fact that your actions had consequences that you don’t like.

To confirm this is a non-apology, let’s replace the “I’m sorry” with “It’s too bad” and see how it reads:

“It’s too bad that you’re upset.”

You can immediately see that there’s nothing in this pointing to the speaker – instead, blame is being reflected back on the other party. Let’s add on the unspoken qualifiers to the end to really fill it out:

“It’s too bad that you’re upset that I ate your ice cream.”

Wow. That’s just… there is clearly no actual regret or humility in that sentence, which is what makes it a non-apology. This sentence is trying to say that if the other party hadn’t gotten upset about you eating your ice cream, that action (which we can all agree is wrong) would have been perfectly justified, which is clearly nonsense.

Let’s compare this with a simple but true apology:

“I’m sorry that I ate your ice cream.”

In this case, the only unspoken qualifier would perhaps be “I’m sorry that I wrongly ate your ice cream,” or “I’m sorry that I ate your ice cream without asking,” or something like that – neither of which change the fundamental meaning of the apology.

If we swap out the “I’m sorry” for “It’s too bad,” it still reads as saying that the speaker did something wrong:

“It’s too bad that I ate your ice cream.”

While this isn’t an apology anymore, it is clear that the speaker is still taking the blame in this sentence, so we know it isn’t a non-apology.

An interesting edge case is the apology that goes “I’m sorry I made you upset.” At a glance, this looks similar to “I’m sorry that you’re upset,” but look a bit closer and you’ll see it is avoiding the reflection of blame so common to a non-apology. This becomes clearer again when you swap out “I’m sorry” for “It’s too bad.”

“It’s too bad I made you upset.”

Again, not an apology now, but the subject of the sentence is still the speaker.

One last thing to note is that the non-apology shouldn’t be confused with using “I’m sorry” to express sympathy. For example, saying “I’m sorry your house burned down” would be a non-apology only if the speaker was actually responsible for burning down your house – otherwise, it is just expressing sympathy.

There’s nothing wrong with apologizing (despite what many people think) – owning up to your own mistakes (essentially, being truthful) is both honorable and respectable, and generally the correct thing to do. Admitting error is the first step to learning and becoming better; denying error and deflecting blame with non-apologies is the coward’s way of avoiding confronting their own shortcomings.

By Keith Survell

Geek, professional programmer, amateur photographer, crazy rabbit guy, only slightly obsessed with cute things.