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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Sorry’ not always meant literally

Judith Martin Universal Uclick

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I find helpful, tactful solutions in your column almost without exception. So, it is difficult to overcome a feeling of insubordination to ask you to consider an adjustment to the following social habit.

You often suggest the preface “I’m sorry …” before a mild social correction, as in, “I’m sorry, but it was you who called me …”

My immediate reaction to the “I’m sorry” preface is to abort the listening process with a mental response of “No, you’re not,” and I don’t think I’m alone here. The phrase is almost always insincere. Very rarely is it used in pre-emptive regret or to soften the presumption of correcting the unappreciative.

More often, it conveys the eye-rolling, musically undulating, sarcastic “Sorry!” of a child’s first forays into the art of passive aggression. The greater the authority of the advice-giver, the greater this effect. An authority on etiquette such as yourself apologizing for dispensing advice on behavior is immediately suspect.

Because of its effect, I think the prefix is counterproductive. One cannot absorb what one resents and tunes out. Risking a response of immediate resentfulness seems antithetical to the goal of good manners.

So, am I missing the point with a guy’s preference for directness over propriety? Or does the phrase cross the boundary between etiquette and smarm – “all due respect” style?

GENTLE READER: Take a look at the opening paragraph of your letter. Gentle Readers often begin with some such deferential compliment, which Miss Manners appreciates, although she does not ordinarily share that part of letters with other readers.

Are such words meant literally? Does she believe that you have qualms about asking a question of someone who is in the business of answering them?

Of course not. You are merely adding a touch of grace to your letter. This need not be analyzed in terms of deep emotional sincerity.

Besides, “sorry” does not always mean one is apologizing for oneself. Miss Manners assures you she is sorry to find people behaving in such a way that forces her to correct them.

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