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This is related to the recent entry in the web comic xkcd: http://xkcd.com/945/

I never say, "I'm sorry," because people interpret that as if I feel at fault, when I don't. I've been simply saying, "that sucks," or, "that is very unfortunate".

If someone dies you can say, "my condolences," and it's perfect; however, that obviously can't be used in a situation not involving death, like in the comic.

Preferably I'd like something like, "I'm [x]," or, "I give you my [x]."

I suppose sympathetic/sympathies would work, but is there any other word or phrase, perhaps something less aggressive so as to be unlikely to be considered sarcastic?

I personally find myself feeling awkward every time this comes up.

EDIT: Keep in mind, I very much dislike adding unnecessary bias to my reply. So saying things like, "that's terrible," is not something I'm a fan of doing. What if it was an icy day and the bus came 20 minutes late? I wouldn't say that's terrible, because I'm implying the bus did a terrible job, when it probably did a great job keeping it's passengers safe.

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Bill Clinton used "I feel your pain" to great effect. –  Robusto Aug 31 '11 at 13:57
    
In the world of sport at least, they tend to say "commiserations". –  Urbycoz Aug 31 '11 at 14:03
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@Robusto "I feel your pain" is a dangerous phrase to say to some people. If you have personally went through the same thing they have, then you have some reason to believe you can understand there pain, however if you have not, some people may feel offended that you think you not only understand the pain, but you apparently "feel" the pain, when they believe it is something most people would not be able to bare. –  Jason McCarrell Aug 31 '11 at 15:03
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I've managed to build a nice reputation of never offending people, unless they deserve it. The specific words I use are important for keeping that reputation =P. –  Jason McCarrell Aug 31 '11 at 15:04
    
@Jason: Joke –  Robusto Aug 31 '11 at 15:06
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11 Answers

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What is your problem with condolence? It does not only apply to grief of death, but of any severe suffering. Its origins are similar to sympathy and compassion, all meaning essentially to suffer together (or as the commenter said "I feel your pain.")

However, all three of these words seem to work: I offer my sympathies, or condolences. I'd also say that to say "I'm sorry" only means "I apologize" in some circumstances. "I'm sorry for the terrible thing happening to you" does not in any way imply that you feel responsible, or are accepting any blame.

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google.ca/… I suppose it doesn't necessarily need to be death, it just seems implied in most cases. –  Jason McCarrell Aug 31 '11 at 14:18
    
I agree. 'Condolences' doesn't have to refer to sorrow about death; merely sorrow about any grief someone is suffering. –  Jez Aug 31 '11 at 15:36
    
There's no implication of death, and certainly not if the context makes the reason for the condolences clear. –  Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 11:48
    
I've found that even people who know that "I'm sorry" doesn't mean "I apologize" still frequently respond to that phrase by saying "it's not your fault," which just gets old after a while. –  Kyle Strand Jul 13 '13 at 6:15
    
I only marked it as correct because you are right about condolences and I hate that this is STILL open. I'm pretty sure the english language doesn't have a better phrase than "my condolences" that works in every context. I will likely just say something like "I feel for you". –  Jason McCarrell Mar 20 at 2:33
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In this context I think it's a contraction of "I'm sorry to hear that" which works better in most circumstances.

In fact I believe that the problem is often the difficulty of coming up with an appropriate response because of the shock factor of the information just received.

"That's dreadful", or "That's terrible" or "How awful" work for me as generic responses that are compassionate without sounding sarcastic.

In the xkcd examnple you gave a more usual response would surely have been "is she alright".

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The contraction explanation makes a lot of sense. Still, it could be taken as you being sorry that you had to hear such bad news... almost as if you are apologizing to yourself. Further although you are using the negative words dreadful, etc. in a general sense, I'm afraid they could be interpreted as being directed towards what caused the misfortune, which is often not my intention when I give my first reply to a person bearing the misfortune. –  Jason McCarrell Aug 31 '11 at 14:23
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You already mention sympathy, which would work. I think compassion is a worthy alternative:

compassion |kəmˈpæʃən| (noun)
sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others

The New Oxford American Dictionary offers the following advice for mercy and related words. See the part about compassion:

enter image description here

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None of these really works in Jason's given context, though. If someone is going through a difficult situation, would you tell that person, "I'm compassionate" or "I'm benevolent"? –  Nicholas Aug 31 '11 at 14:11
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As I understood it, the context is to replace “condolences” in “my condolences”. “My sympathies” works. –  F'x Aug 31 '11 at 14:14
    
Ya I agree. I found this answer informative, but not specific enough to answer the question. –  Jason McCarrell Aug 31 '11 at 14:14
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This wouldn't work for the burned down house example, but often sharing pain can be expressed by 'I can commiserate with you'.

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My personal preference would be "commiserations".

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I've recently started to hear "I feel you" in such cases. I think it is used in some american states.

Even though it has a little "hippie" feel to it, I quite like this phrasing because it is neither pompous nor pretentious (like "i feel your pain" can seem) and it skips the apologies' confusion.

It just says what needs to be said which is a sharing of feeling without any more precision.

The problem is this phrasing is familiar and cannot be used in all situations.

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If you do not wish to use "condolences", there are several alternatives:

You are in my prayers.
You are in our hearts
Our thoughts and prayers are with you
You have my deepest sympathy

These are several you can use that doesn't imply death.

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My heart goes out to you is also an option.

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I would use the word "regrets."

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Maybe you want a polite response that will be safe in social situations, in that case I'd go with whatever other people say a lot. More of an etiquette question.

If you feel more comfortable with "sorry", then you can always flesh it out with what you're sorry for.... I'm really sorry to hear that. I'm sorry you had to go through that. I'm sorry you're having to go through that right now.

Or you can show concern by asking them more about their experience with it. How are you holding up? How is that for you? This way you avoid the perceived arrogance of knowing what they're going through.

OR.... you could try to express exactly what you are feeling, at your own risk.

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There are things to consider when writing a letter for condolences. One must not say to the bereaved family, "God wanted it this way." When you are writing to a friend or associate, just keep it short and simple. Simply express your concern, sorrow, and support.

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The question is specifically not about funereal condolences. –  Bradd Szonye May 21 '13 at 6:46
    
Reading the question before answering would be a better start... –  Tonik Mar 16 at 11:24
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