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On a recent trip the US, someone explained to me that saying "sorry" meant taking responsibility for causing the loss. Thus you should only say sorry if you intended to fix the situation. (And potentially even had implications for insurance and litigation).

I'm an Australian - generally when people say "I'm sorry" it means "I can display empathy for your loss and can put myself in your shoes". [implicitly also that no responsibility is taken - nor any effort being made to restore the situation]

My question is: Do English speaking subcultures attach different meanings to the phrase "I'm sorry"?

(This is different to the other questions relating to the meaning of 'sorry' because it considers the legal and restorative implications as well as the geographic context).

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  • you're probably aware it's a fun cliché that in Canada, people overuse "sorry" as a sort of general reflexive rejoinder or interjection. (just google.) i'd never particularly noticed the aus/usa difference you mention but you're right.
    – Fattie
    Jun 7, 2015 at 5:25
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    In the context of a road accident, you're absolutely right; never apologise, not even in the UK. That will be taken as an admission of liability. But are you talking about this alone, or the cultures generally? I assume you know that a Brit says "Sorry" when you tread on HER foot? This has been tested experimentally, source on request.
    – David Pugh
    Jun 7, 2015 at 7:47
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    I would say your American source was not representative of AmE usage. We do, for example, say "I'm sorry" at funerals, where it's clearly not one's fault, nor does one intend to do (nor could one do) anything about the death. Jun 7, 2015 at 8:50
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    As with so many phatic utterances, context and nuance makes all the difference. Sweeping assertions like that made by your American informant tend to be the result of a partisan, parochial or excessively idiosyncratic perspective.
    – Erik Kowal
    Jun 7, 2015 at 10:16
  • There is some possibility of deliberate misinterpretation for the sake of malice or personal gain, which may be what you were warned against. I would hesitate to say that such a thing is the norm in any society, however.
    – Grizzled
    Jun 7, 2015 at 12:26

2 Answers 2

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I'm aware of a few different usages of "I'm sorry" in the US. I'm a native, by the way.

  1. I'm sorry - "I apologize for some error I've made."

In this case, it is used to ask for forgiveness. Many times there's not anything you can do to "fix" the issue, so that case doesn't prevent you from saying it. For example, if you break a dish in someone's home, it's appropriate to say "I'm sorry" but they're not going to expect you to replace or fix their dish just because you told them that you're sorry.

  1. I'm sorry - "I commiserate with you for something bad that happened."

This is a perfectly valid use. "I'm so sorry for your loss" is perfectly appropriate at a funeral, for example. Because of the prevalence of the former, it's not uncommon for someone, often through levity, to say "it wasn't your fault" (or similar) as a rejoinder... which is occasionally followed by an eye roll and, "You know what I mean".

  1. I'm sorry - "Excuse me./Pardon me."

This use has a couple of sub-categories. It's often used when you need to interrupt a conversation or ask for something to be repeated. In this case, it's similar to the first use's apology but has the added interruption meaning. The other use is when one feels they've been slighted through someone's speech and is usually followed by a very emphatic "What did you [just] say" to get the speaker to repeat the slight to the slighted persons face (should they dare). If someone doesn't back down, this can lead to a fight.

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It is not that in America it means one thing, in Australia something else and in the UK something different yet again.

But the fact is that, within English, people use the word sorry in a multiplicity of ways and for different purposes - various of which have been referred to in the comments. One could easily make it the topic of a lengthy essay. However two obviously different uses are for a) to express sorrow, and by implication sympathy (I was sorry to hear of the death of your father), and b) to apologise (I'm sorry I'm late)

It is a complex matter and lends itself to disciplines such as philosophy, and social studies. But in my opinion I don't think you will find a great deal of difference in the way people say they are sorry across the English-speaking world. This is very unlike, for example, Japan where apologising, and its protocols can be quite different to our own way of behaving.

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  • Quite right. As you imply, the context is paramount for the interpretation.
    – Erik Kowal
    Jun 7, 2015 at 10:12

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