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Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Shirley Taylor -- At work and in life, saying "I'm sorry" does not necessarily mean you have done something wrong. In fact, saying "I'm sorry" can mean you've done something right.

Well, Elton John certainly got that right. "Sorry" seems to be the hardest word for many people. In fact, it seems more difficult in some parts of the world than others. It's something that has bothered me for the longest time. So much so, especially recently, that I have to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and write this rant (aka blog post).

Ever since I've lived here, I've always struggled with the way so many people have difficulty saying "Sorry". Here are some examples that I've encountered just recently:

1. In a café

Me: Can I get a new glass please? This one is dirty.
Waitress: I'll get you a new one.
(or worse still, nothing at all, but he just changed the glass)

2. In a restaurant

Me: I'd like the salmon please.
Waiter: There's no more salmon today.

3. In a shoe store

Me: Do you have these shoes in a size 41?
Assistant: Size 39 is the biggest.

Why can't they say, "I'm sorry... "?

This is the question I've wondered about so many times. I'm consistently told it's because the person believes that saying "sorry" indicates they have personally done something wrong.

Can we please get this right!

Saying, "I'm sorry" when my glass is dirty is the right thing to say. What you are saying is, "I'm sorry this happened." Or, "I'm sorry you got a dirty glass." You are not saying, "I'm sorry that I didn't wash the glass properly, and it's my fault."

Saying, "I'm sorry" when there's no more salmon left, would mean you're showing regret or sadness about something. You are not saying that you're responsible for there being no salmon.

Here are two more examples:

1. Speaking with a friend

Friend: You're limping. What's wrong?
Me: I just tripped over and fell. My knee really hurts.
Friend: Aiyah! Why are you so careless?

2. To a colleague

Me: I was so sick at the weekend with a bad migraine.
Colleague: Good job it was weekend and you could rest.

Why oh why can't these people just say, "I'm sorry"?

Saying, "I'm sorry" wouldn't mean you were responsible for my fall. It would mean you were feeling compassion for me.

Saying, "I'm sorry" wouldn't mean you were the cause of my migraine. It would mean you were feeling concern for me.

And this one takes the cake...

Here's what happened when I wrote to a client who was overdue in paying our invoice, and not for the first time. Here are extracts from her reply:

--Unfortunately, there are processes involved that are beyond my control.
-- I will expedite where possible during these changes.
-- Your understanding would be much appreciated.

Do you see the problem here? "Unfortunately" seems to mean, "Too bad". If she had said, "I'm sorry about this", it would mean, "I care".

If the writer had just once in this whole series of emails said, "I'm so sorry about this", it would really have shown me that she understands what I'm going through and is feeling concern and compassion for my situation. It would also have assured me that she cared. As a result, I would have felt better, despite the delays.

So please...

Sorry doesn't have to be the hardest word!

Parents: Please teach your children about the importance of the word, "sorry", and its many meanings. Also teach them about the implications of saying the word, and not saying the word.

Employers: Please make sure your employees are trained in the importance of the word, "sorry", and how it should be used in customer service. And of course the implications of saying it and not saying it.

Let's not continue letting "Sorry" be the hardest word to say. Let's work together and make "sorry" a very much easier word to say! Let's make it the right word to say!

What do you say? I'd love your comments and thoughts about the use of "sorry" in your part of the world. Plus any examples of when you have heard, or not heard, the word, "sorry" recently.


Shirley is a high-energy, high-content speaker who is passionate about motivating individuals to make a real difference in our automated world. With inspiring stories and a fun style, she engages audiences quickly, and encourages them to embrace high-touch as well as high-tech so they can connect with heart. Shirley has been a trusted member of the professional speaking and training community for many years, and has received several awards for her services in leadership. She served as Asia Professional Speakers Singapore President 2011-12 and as Global Speakers Federation President 2017-18. She has spoken in almost 20 countries all over the world. Author of 12 books published by international publishers, Shirley has established herself as a leading authority in workplace communication, business writing, and email. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition has sold over half a million copies worldwide and been translated into 17 languages. If you would like Shirley to speak at your next event, visit

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