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English uses "I'm sorry" to both mean "my apologies" (implying guilt, or that you've done something to cause it) and "that's unfortunate" (no guilt implied, like you'd say when you're consoling somebody) and it doesn't make the distinction between the two situations. When I respond to a person who has just shared unfortunate news by saying "I'm sorry", people tend to reply to me with "it's okay" when it's obviously okay (as I didn't contribute to their situation), but it's also odd that it's like I'm asking them to comfort me when they're the one with the situation and I've tried to express sympathy but it feels like it minimizes my acknowledgement and makes it about me rather than them.

Is there a different word/phrase that can be used in place of "I'm sorry" when somebody shares unfortunate news, but that avoids the implication of guilt or the reflexive "it's okay" response?

I found another question asking something similar (Is there a word similar to "condolences" that doesn't involve death?), but it's about "condolences" specifically - while I've thought that word would work in this situation, I also agree that it's death-centric and doesn't apply generally (maybe it's the best choice and should apply, but changing that will take a while). That question is also 10 years old and I'm wondering if there's any new thought since then on a better phrase to use here.

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Something less formal than sympathies and condolences is

I feel for you.

Cambridge Dictionary has

feel for someone
phrasal verb

to experience sympathy and sadness for someone because they are suffering

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People generally use 'my sympathies', though it does have a bit of a formal ring to it. The phrase itself doesn't appear in dictionaries, but sympathies refer to

feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

the formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune; condolences.

(Oxford Languages)

On the other hand, you don't really have to avoid using 'I'm sorry' in this context because it doesn't have to necessarily include a sense of regret or guilt:

  • Merriam-Webster's first definition for the word is just "feeling sorrow or sympathy." (and this is the sense from which the expression arose)
  • Most people use 'I'm sorry' in a manner that reflects the above point- that is, the majority of people who say that they're sorry about something aren't actually taking blame or showing guilt.
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    I do like "my sympathies" but I'm hoping there's something less formal. Maybe I just happen to be surrounded by people who respond to saying "I'm sorry" as if it's apology and it's not actually that common generally, so this is less of an issue for general English-speakers :)
    – SqlRyan
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 21:47
  • @SqlRyan - yep- it is a bit formal, if you're looking for something more casual, Weather Vane's answer is excellent :) Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 23:04
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One option is the more specific phrase "(I'm) sorry to hear that." TfD defines it as:

  1. I extend my condolences (upon hearing your unfortunate news).
  2. What you just told me is regrettable or unfortunate.

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