Apologies and Hurt Feelings

Joakim Book
8 min readFeb 9, 2022

You should probably say “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” more often; and reject those who think it’s a terrible and hurtful phrase.

A thing about apologies has troubled me for some months — some might say for most of my life. Maybe I’m too stubborn; Maybe I’m too narcissistic; Maybe I just don’t care about people’s feelings that much. Whatever the case, the hatred that the passive-aggressive semi-apology “I’m sorry you feel that way” receives seems to me mostly undeserved.

The phrase has its use, contrary to the woke war waged against it.

HuffPo runs things like “If You Say This During an Apology, You’re Doing It Wrong”. Psychology Today reports it along with twelve other “fake apologies” as tools wielded by narcissists. Wikipedia even has an entry called Non-Apology Apology. It reads:

Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” to someone who has been offended by a statement is a non-apology apology. It does not admit there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and may imply the person took offense for hypersensitive or irrational reasons.

As I’m wont to do, I argue that all this is mistaken.

The basic premise of my rejection is that the party who has been offended does not have monopoly on either (a) what happened, or (b) the values involved in the actions taken or words spoken. It takes two to tango — and symmetry rules.

It is hard bridging the gap between minds: talking to strangers is hard; talking to friends and loved ones sometimes even harder. There’s a gap between intention and interpretation, and an overarching disagreement over what’s proper behaviour.

But the woke, culturally sensitive case overlooks all that. Writes Jane Brody in the New York Times:

“I admit to a lifetime of challenges when it comes to apologizing, especially when I thought I was right or misunderstood or that the offended party was being overly sensitive. But I recently discovered that the need for an apology is less about me than the person who, for whatever reason, is offended by something I said or did or failed to do, regardless of my intentions.”

Top sensitivity stuff: the supposed victim’s feelings rule.

According to Dr. Harriet Lerner whose book on apologies frequently gets quoted, “I’m sorry you feel that way” is a way to shift the focus away from the person in error towards the person making the accusation.

Precisely. That’s not a lapse of judgement or some obvious crime against humanity, but exactly the point. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is saying I care about your emotional wellbeing and don’t want you to suffer, but I disagree with the charge you’ve laid at my door. What you say was an error wasn’t an error (type b), or you misread the situation or the intended meaning of my words (type a).

Let me explain by using my favourite game-theoretic tool — a 4-quadrant box:

There are four options available in a two-person relationship: Peace, Agreement and two sets of Conflicts, an Innocent one and an Aggressive one (these are words I just made up to make the explanation easier).

  • Peace. Bottom Right (Quadrant IV): if we both think that our respective words and behaviour were not in error, we’re at peace. No apology owed.
  • Agreement. Top Right (Quadrant I): if we both think I was in error, we both agree that I owe you an apology, which hopefully I will deliver to the best of my sincerest abilities. Apology owed, and delivered.
  • Innocent Conflict. Top Left (Quadrant II): If I believe I was in error, but you do not, we’re overshooting the mark. I will apologise, and you will brush it away as nothing, believing sincerely that there was nothing to apologise for.
    No apology owed, but one was delivered anyway.
  • Aggressive Conflict. Bottom Left (Quadrant III): This is where all the fuss is, where we disagree over whether an error has been committed and an apology is owed. If I believe you wronged me, I think you owe me an apology. You disagree.
    Either you don’t think that my characterisation and/or feeling of what happened is correct, or you don’t think that what happened constitutes an error (at least one worthy of an apology). Apology may or may not be owed, but hasn’t been delivered. Unsettled.

“I’m sorry you feel that way” is a phrase for Quadrant III. It indicates that we’re in dispute either over what happened (there are two perspectives and interpretations, equally worthy of respect!) or over whether that behaviour is an error (our value systems don’t overlap).

The rants against that sordid phrase confuses a situation of Quadrant III with the column to the right (Quadrant I or Quadrant IV). The people who righteously write about the horrid people who apologised with this phrase think we’re in a situation of agreement when we’re actually not. Your assessment of values and of what happened are not universally true just because you feel them.

It’s a case of mistaken category. When somebody says “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way”, it’s a message that you disagree over whether errors were committed. It’s a conflict of values or of interpretations, but one where the accused still cares for your wellbeing and wishes to maintain a relationship. It’s a phrase that says “I disagree with your reading of the situation” or “I disagree with the values that made you take offence”, but that I’m still interested in maintaining our relationship and I want to make sure we can still do that.

This last part is crucial.

Let me explain with another schematic graph. The area to the left is the clear break most of us have experienced at some point: the relationship falls apart. One person does or says something so unforgivable to the other that the parties can no longer co-exist. That’s it.

The area to the right is one of negotiation, beyond which lies blissful coexistence. I may disagree with the values or the interpretation, but the conflict is so minor that I’m happy to give in. I’ll apologise, unconditionally, because I value the continuation of this relationship more than whatever the topic of conflict is. Over time, my values will probably align with yours.

I’m sorry you feel that way occupies the space in-between. Where you still want to maintain the relationship as it were before the conflict, but cannot accept or give in to the value system and/or interpretation of events.

After all, one party does not have monopoly on truth; the other person’s value systems do not unilaterally decide what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Then again, having the ability to admit — or even contemplate — that oneself is mistaken is an ability short on stock these days, so no wonder.

Our perceptions, feelings and interpretations of what took place are not accurate record-keeping devices: we can see things that didn’t happen; we can infer others’ motivations that weren’t there. Errors can happen in both directions.

Strange, I find, that the very people we are quick to reject reality for personal experience — those who invoke “lived experience” or “you don’t know what it’s like to be X” — are also those least able to grasp this distinction. They’re the ones to reject the “I’m sorry you feel that way” most aggressively. If they feel that they have been wronged, an apology is owed — and that’s that.

No considering whether the other person’s “lived experience” differ from theirs.

Victim status of “I felt offended” carry no currency here. They don’t seem to grasp that others can have a different interpretation of things — and that another’s claim to what is and isn’t an offence is on equal footing with yours. That’s why so much of woke ideology fails the basic test of universalisability. In relation with others, one cannot hold that one is uniquely special. Symmetry rules.

Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy helpfully writes:

The requirement that moral judgments be universalizable is, roughly, the requirement that such judgments be independent of any particular point of view. Thus, an agent who judges that A ought morally to do X in situation S ought to be willing to endorse the same judgment whether she herself happens to be A, or some other individual involved in the situation (someone who, perhaps, will be directly affected by A’s actions), or an entirely neutral observer. Her particular identity is completely irrelevant in the determination of the correctness or appropriateness of the judgment.

With a straight face, one cannot coherently argue that rules for everyone don’t apply to me — or at least not expect to be taken seriously. No, you’re not a special case simply because the world as you see it is observed through your eyes.

Another way to frame this is, as Bret Weinstein does in the clip below, that an “apology is a discussion of debt”. Those who rally against “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” focus on the “debt” part, but overlook that the phrase is an invitation to the “discussion” part.

(1:15:40)

Think about the phrasing in Brody’s quote above: “the need for an apology is” about the other person’s feelings — says who? There is no universally accepted or objectively measured standards against which “the need” for an apology can be measured. Nobody owns the truth of what took place between two people, and nobody owns the right to interpret the moral value scales that demands that.

Relationships are negotiated and your perspectives of what took place (and what values ought to guide that kind of interaction) are not correct by default. The other person has an equal right to asses different values of behaviour, different interpretation (or intentionality) of what happened.

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way has its use and place in every relationship. It says: I will not recognise or accept the error with which you have charged me, but I will also not walk away from this relationship. May we now discuss what explains the person’s behaviour, what prompted the victim to feel offended and how the two of you may co-exist in the future?

Photo credits: NeONBRAND

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Joakim Book

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