When 'Sorry' really is the hardest word

It's never easy to say 'I'm sorry' - and mean it.
We do almost anything to avoid the humiliation. And even when there's no alternative - when we know we just have to kneel before the one we have wronged and admit our shortcoming - we still try to weasel our way out of making a full-on apology.
And we often do this by twisting the way we use language.

'I'm sorry if you were upset', which of course means, 'It's really your fault for taking it the wrong way.'

Or - as my grandson declared after that crash in the kitchen and he was found surrounded by shards of shattered glass - 'It got broken'.

That silly, careless glass!

We use language to deflect the blame.

There was a typical case last year which involved the grime artist, Wiley. What began with a racist social media tirade, ended with an apology ... of sorts. Did he mean it? Was he being sincere? And why is his use of language so relevant?

"I'm not racist", Wiley claimed.

Wow, that's a relief! For a moment back there, you had me fooled. Clearly, your comments comparing Jewish people to the Klu Klax Klan were little more than an involuntary verbal spasm.


The misunderstood fellow elaborated -

"I'm not racist. I'm a businessman."

Well, of course you are! That explains everything – how could I have imagined you could be both racist and a businessman?

OK - enough heavy sarcasm. Let's get to the point ...

The language of apology

Eventually, with the cruel threat of a social media ban hanging over him, Wiley apologised. But - in making his apology, he used language which fatally undermined its sincerity. We all do it, especially in business. If we thought more carefully about the 'voice' we use, we would benefit more than we might realise.

Here's what I mean. When articulating the apology for his (and let's be generous) 'ill-judged' remarks, Wiley stated,

"My comments should not have been directed to all Jews or Jewish people"

Look what he did. He used the 'passive voice'. I'll try not to get too grammar-technical here, but Wiley's mistake was to leave out the person that committed the action (himself) and put the object at the start of the sentence. Do you see the effect this has? By taking himself out of the picture, he's implicitly avoiding responsibility. He's hiding behind the passive voice. It's the coward's way out ... and we all do it.

Imagine if he'd said,

"I shouldn't have directed my comments to all Jews …".

That statement uses the 'active voice', with the subject, 'I', at the start of the sentence. How much more effective the apology becomes. It's as though the speaker is taking full responsibility for their actions.

Interestingly, Twitter felt the need to apologise for their tardiness in taking action. They could have said, "Wiley's tweet should have been taken down sooner." To their credit, they used the active voice

"We are sorry we did not move faster,"

Now that's a proper apology.

Let's look at a few more examples -



And in everyday business communications -


seo copywriting

Do you see how in each case, the active voice sounds so much engaging - more personal? Even when an apology isn't called for (whoops! Sorry …) even when the situation doesn't call for an apology.

Less remote - more genuine

In all our business communications - spoken or written, web copy, email or sales letter, we should, whenever possible, use the active voice. It makes us sound less remote, more genuine, more human.

Just imagine if a rather well-known manufacturer of athletic-wear had used this as their tag line:

Just get it done

Have I still failed to convince you of the value of the active voice?

Suppose we always spoke in the passive voice. We'd lose all the emotion – all the passion out of our everyday exchanges. Passion? Yep! How about this famous scene from the movies? The first-ever occurrence of a swear word in the cinema.


… and if our hero has used the passive voice?



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Nov 9, 2021
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