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Does apologizing entail recognizing being at fault?

Often, in conversation, something like this will happen:

A: I didn't sleep well last night; My dog ran away; or A family member passed away last night.
B: I'm sorry.
A: Why are you sorry? It isn't your fault.

How do you succinctly and conversationally express that you feel sympathetic for the other person's misfortune without inviting the response (or a variation thereof) "It's not your fault"?

The closest I have to that are "My condolences" or "You have my sympathy," but those phrases don't feel particularly conversational.

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Just say "I'm sorry to hear that". I think it's General Reference. –  FumbleFingers Nov 29 '12 at 19:30
Anyone who is so ignorant of conversational idioms as to accidentally misconstrue a sympathetic "I'm sorry" as an apology -- or who is such a jerk he pretends he does so -- doesn't deserve your sympathy. –  Malvolio Nov 29 '12 at 20:11
Are you looking for a phrase that expresses sympathy, doesn't incur an "it's not your fault" response, AND doesn't prolong the exchange between you and the other person? If so, that is asking for a powerful expression and a powerful facial expression to deliver it. –  tylerharms Nov 29 '12 at 21:03
I can't believe you'd say "That sucks". How gross! Okay, it passes for something meaningful to say when one's brain is media-whipped by too much TV, too many Hollywood movies, & too many rap-crap MP3s. "I'm sorry to hear that" or "That's terrible. I'm sorry to hear that" are fine responses, but "That sucks" is crass, crude, and incredible. "That sucks" is for when your friend says something like "My girlfriend gave me scabies because she shagged some infected guy last month." –  user21497 Nov 29 '12 at 23:18
I don't think this is a duplicate of Does apologizing entail recognizing being at fault. I do have vague recollections of this question being asked before, but that's not it. –  Marthaª Nov 30 '12 at 18:48
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, J.R., Robusto, tchrist, MετάEd Nov 30 '12 at 0:25

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5 Answers

The phrase that sucks in your example already expresses sympathy. The use of the apologetic non-apology I'm sorry following that sentiment is entirely redundant, though it is commonly used idiomatically in the way you've described.

If you must attach some further compassionate sentiment, you might instead include a little empathy, That sucks, I've recently lost a family member myself, or express willingness to help them resolve the problem (if possible), That sucks, have you tried chamomile tea?

I'm sorry is widely understood to be an expression of compassion rather than an acknowledgement of personal fault. The reply it isn't your fault is a purposely obtuse reaction. The listener, if a native English speaker, knows that you did not intend any contrition or assume any blame. You aren't pledging to make a future change to avoid a repeat of the situation. Such a reply was probably intended to be playful or teasing, or exposes underlying hostility.

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Or worse, "sucks to be you!". I get that sometimes - it offers little comfort! :-) –  Kristina Lopez Nov 29 '12 at 19:57
Better than "you deserve it", though :D –  Chris Nov 29 '12 at 20:00
If "that sucks" is an expression of sympathy, then I'll have none of it, thank you. I'd rather feel my fox terrier's tongue on my nose than hear those "sympathetic" syllables shrieking in my aural cavities. –  user21497 Nov 30 '12 at 0:29
@KristinaLopez: 'Sucks to you!" is the very opposite of sympathy: english.stackexchange.com/q/72663/8019. –  TimLymington Dec 1 '12 at 17:10
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"I feel bad for you" expresses empathy without conveying the idea you are asking for forgiveness.

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Perhaps a little condescending, no? –  Asad Nov 29 '12 at 21:23
@Asad, I've never felt that way when someone has said that to me so that's an interesting observation. Maybe I'm picturing the body language that goes along with the sentiment - a touch on the arm or a hug. I guess the unspoken helps convey meaning as much or moreso than the actual words. –  Kristina Lopez Nov 29 '12 at 21:41
I think this certainly works in some situations. It definitely requires proper tone control, though, as I could easily see it being taken the wrong way. –  corvec Nov 29 '12 at 22:08
@Asad: Just about any expression of sympathy or apology could be taken as condescending or sincere, depending on how it's uttered. For example, "Excuse me" can be a perfectly polite thing to say – and then there's Steve Martin's rendition. –  J.R. Nov 30 '12 at 0:37
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You can stipulate the 'expressing sorrow for' rather than apologetic sense by: "Oh, that's awful. I'm so sorry for you."

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Macmillan has some interesting information on this. Under there phrasal listings for sorry, they say:

feel sorry for someone 1 to feel sympathy for someone because they are in a difficult or unpleasant situation

but they also list:

I'm sorry [also Sorry, when spoken] 1 used for telling someone that you are ashamed or unhappy about something that you have done that has hurt or upset them : I'm sorry – I shouldn't have blamed you. 2 used in a social situation as a way of asking someone to forgive you for doing something rude, embarrassing, etc. : Sorry, I should have called to let you know I'd be late.

I've found that many people say, "I'm sorry," when they wish to convey "I feel sorry for you." I think most hearers overlook it, and make the mental jump just fine, but, apparently, some do not, and they mistakenly wonder if "I'm sorry" means, "Let me apologize," when it really means, "I feel bad for you."

I, too, am often reluctant to say "I feel sorry for you", perhaps because it sounds too much like this phrasal use of the word sorry:

feel sorry for yourself 1 to feel sad about your life instead of trying to do things that could make you feel better

In my experience, feeling sorry for yourself is usually construed to be a bad thing, so I can understand why someone might be reluctant to say, I feel sorry for you, and instead opt for the more concise I'm sorry. As others have said, if you want to avoid a possible misunderstanding, there are plenty of other ways to convey that sentiment. You could say something like, "I feel bad for you," or you could even just offer a one-word interjection of empathy: "Ouch!"

Sorry can be a confusing word, I guess. Sorry about that.

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"Feel sorry for" is considered condescending, at least in American English. "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself. / A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough / without ever having felt sorry for itself." –  Malvolio Nov 29 '12 at 21:29
@Malvolio: Instinctively, I agree with you; I think my answer shows that. I also agreed with your comment above: most hearers should be able to handily distinguish between "I'm sorry" as an apology, "I'm sorry" as "excuse me," and "I'm sorry" as "I'm sorry to hear that." But I did think it was worth pointing out that at least one dictionary would back those who would misinterpret the empathetic utterance as an apology, considering that's the scenario the O.P. has apparently experienced. For the record, though, I find myself camped more in the school of Malvolio than Macmillan in this matter. –  J.R. Nov 29 '12 at 22:19
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Since you mention that this is a conversational response and not just a passing comment, and assuming you sincerely care about the person, I think a much better way to express sincere sympathy is by asking How are you feeling? I think that any form of "I'm sorry" meant to quickly deal with the person's trouble is going to sound false and BE false. How are you feeling? succinctly expresses your sympathy and interest in the person while implying zero involvement in the event. Obviously, this could result in quite a long conversation if the person has suffered something serious, but what can you do if you care about the person.

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Hmmmm. If I said a loved one just died and someone asked me how am I feeling, I would not take that well. I'd say, "Terrible! How do you think I'm feeling?" –  Kristina Lopez Nov 29 '12 at 21:43
Television reporters ask this question often. In that context, it rarely comes across as empathetic, and sometimes it even comes across as a dumb question. I can't agree that "any form of 'I'm sorry .. [will] sound false and be false," or that the "only" way to express sincere sympathy is to ask, "How are you feeling?" (Perhaps there are some instances where a question about feelings would be more caring than a two-word "I'm sorry," but that's about as far as I can agree with this.) –  J.R. Nov 30 '12 at 9:00
That would sound disingenuous coming from a TV reporter, yes, but from someone who cares about you, it would not. I specified that. I am assuming the OP is concerned with the communication between people who have vested interests in each other. "How are you feeling/doing/handling it" seems an appropriate response to someone who has taken the time to share their grief with you. –  tylerharms Nov 30 '12 at 14:05
I'm not saying that a caring person couldn't ask this question and be sincere, but I still can't agree with the assertions that (a) asking "How are you feeling?" is the "only" way to show sympathy, or (b) saying "I'm sorry" is going to "BE" false. First, sincere people can say, "I'm sorry." That, along with a hug, can sometimes be enough, particularly between close friends. Secondly, there are plenty of other ways to show empathy, like, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. Seriously, if you need something, or just want to talk, call me – even at 3 in morning." –  J.R. Nov 30 '12 at 16:17
J.R.: Agreed. Absolutely. I'm not trying to be that rigid about it. I found it strange that the question was asking for some succinct combination of "I'm sorry" and another condolence to do the job of comforting a person's grief. "I´m sorry" is a good place to start, but I think asking for a quick fix is impossible. Consequentially, many of my Spanish-speaking friends do not want to hear "lo siento" in response to the death of a grandparent or some other major loss. It sounds insincere to them to say, essentially, "I feel it (your loss)" when you may not have experienced it. –  tylerharms Nov 30 '12 at 16:28
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