Making an Apology
Apologizing, whether to a friend or your employer, often requires more than a simple I’m sorry. In fact, such a short response, especially to a superior, can be perceived as rude or arrogant. In NYC English-speaking culture, there are several strategies for apologizing. Knowing which ones to use depends largely on the situation, but when apologizing to people of higher status, it is better to incorporate several strategies.7
1. Expression of apology (Sorry./I’m sorry./I’m very sorry./I’m really sorry about that.)
2. Acknowledgment of responsibility (That’s definitely on me./That’s my mistake./You’re right./It’s totally my fault.)
3. Explanation (There was a sick passenger on the subway./I didn’t realize there was a second section on the homework assignment./I misunderstood the deadline.)
4. Offering to fix situation (How can I make it up to you?/I’ll definitely come in earlier tomorrow to make up for lost time./Let me ask our professor about getting a small deadline extension.)
5. Promise of non-recurrence (Rest assured that this won’t happen again./I won’t make the same mistake again./I’ll be extra careful reading important documents in the future.) Note: This strategy, of course, would not be used in situations you do not expect to find yourself in again, such as bumping into a stranger on the subway.
Look at the following situation. What strategies are used in the apology?
“Mr. Kim, why didn’t you include the semi-quarterly figures in your report? Our clients expected to see them in the meeting this morning.”
Apology: “I’m very sorry, Ms. Jones. I misunderstood your instructions in the departmental memo. In the future I’ll be sure to clarify with you before any deadlines.”
(I’m very sorry, Ms. Jones. [expression of apology] I misunderstood your instructions in the departmental memo. [explanation] In the future I’ll be sure to clarify with you before any deadlines. [promise of non-recurrence])
Other Considerations when Apologizing
1. Saying “I apologize…” is not as common in oral communication as it is in writing.16 It is often used in very formal contexts, but in most cases, a variation of I’m sorry is a more natural substitute (but remember that this phrase alone may not be adequate).
2. Apologies can be intensified with adverbials such as very, really, and so. In fact, multiple intensifiers can be used in the same apology, such as I’m so very sorry, I’m really, really sorry, and I’m really very sorry.4
3. Depending on the situation, showing concern for the listener may be appropriate. For example, if a person accidentally hits another person with an opening door, the apologizer can say, I’m so sorry. Are you alright?
4. Exclamations such as oh, ah, oops, and Oh my gosh/God are common at the beginning of apologies to show surprise and/or demonstrate that the thing being apologized for was an accident.
Scenarios for Practice
In the following scenarios, choose the best response (1, 2, or 3), and then check your answers.
Scenario 1: You are ten minutes late to work. Your boss notices you walking in, and approaches you.
Boss: “Ms. Cruz, you’re late.”
1. Sorry about that!
2. I’m very sorry. The subways were delayed, so it wasn’t my fault.
3. I’m very sorry. The subways were delayed. I’ll do my best to notify the office ahead of time if it happens again.
1. Sorry about that! This apology is insufficient and too casual.
2. I’m very sorry. The subways were delayed, so it wasn’t my fault. This apology gives an explanation as an excuse.
3. I’m very sorry. The subways were delayed. I’ll do my best to notify the office ahead of time if it happens again. This apology acknowledges the issue without making excuses, and offers a plan for the future.
Scenario 2: You’ve just ordered a coffee at a cafe, and are waiting for it. You hear the barista call out what you believe to be your drink, and take it. However, you quickly realize this is not your drink, and the person who ordered it approaches you.
Person: “Hey, I think that’s my drink.”
1. Oops, my mistake. Here you go.
2. I’m so sorry. In the future, this won’t happen again.
3. I’m really sorry. Are you ok?
1. Oops, my mistake. Here you go. This apology is appropriate for such a minor issue. Notice that I’m sorry, while appropriate, is not even necessary.
2. I’m so sorry. In the future, this won’t happen again. As it is unlikely that you’ll be in the same situation with the same person again, a promise of non-recurrence is inappropriate.
3. I’m really sorry. Are you ok? This situation has done very little to negatively affect the other person, so it is unnecessary to ask about the person’s wellbeing.
Responding to an Apology
While knowing how to make an apology is useful, choosing the rights words to respond can make your interactions more appropriate. Note that responding to an apology does not necessarily mean accepting an apology; the type of response depends on the situation.
This section is currently under construction. Please check back later.
For a full list of references used cited in the “Appropriate Communication” sections, click here.