I recently got into a bit of a debate or if you prefer an argument with someone about uses of phrases such as:
“I’m sorry that you found that offensive”
“I’m sorry that I offended you”.
Their view was that the former was a poor excuse of an apology and was worse than not simply not offering an apology, that if you were sorry then you should apologise for causing offense not try to make it the other persons fault, and that such phrases are attempts to invalidate the other persons point of view. Now obviously that’s a summary and from my memory only (as I’ve since been blocked so can’t quote anything), also obviously I held a differing point of view.
Now whilst I do have some truck with the opinion that people take offense and so being offended is very much the problem of the person who is offended. A view put rather well by the comedian Steve Hughes:
However on this occasion that wasn’t what I wanted to argue, my view was that there are times when being sorry that someone feels offended and not being sorry that you offended them is a perfectly valid and coherent stance to take.
The most obvious example being our archetypal bigot:
Bigot: That thing offends me
Person: I’m sorry that you find that offensive ( because it indicates you’re a terrible person and you’re making your own life miserable for no good reason, which is really sad – but I’m in no way sorry for whatever it is you took offense to).
I can think of numerous examples where similar sentiment might apply, you can quite easily be sorry that someone feels a particular way or has a particular opinion without being sorry that you caused that feeling or having any attention to do anything to avoid causing that feeling again. Now at this point something interesting happened they started using the word “upset” rather than “offended”. I commented on this as I consider them to at the very least imply quite different things, but I was then told two things:
1) That they were synonyms
2) That the person didn’t want to get into a semantic debate.
Now I’m really not sure how you can discuss the meaning and use of sentences without getting into semantics, you do after all need to make sure you all have the same understanding of the words being used. Which we clearly didn’t which I’d have quite liked to have discussed. However lets for now set that aside. The claim that the words “upset” and “offended” are synonymous is quite interesting. Firstly words being synonymous doesn’t mean they are identical at least not according to Merriam Webster:
“one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses”
So synonymous words doesn’t always mean the exact same thing, and “upset” and “offend” only nearly mean the same thing in their tertiary uses. So the change from offended to upset is not a trivial change to the argument. Which is where I think our confusion arose and where the false comparison between the phrases in question is made.
The other confounding factor is the word “sorry” which is also delightfully ambiguous.
1. feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence
So when you say your sorry it may be that you feel sad about the thing, you may regret it or you may be penitent, only in the last case does it apply an apology. Which I think comes to the nub of the confusion, when I read the two phrases I see it as being quite possible to read them as:
“I regret that you’re angry at my actions” or “I regret that you consider my actions to break your moral code”
“I’m penitent that I caused you to be emotionally troubled” or “I regret that I made an error that vexed you”
The phrases are saying quite different but equally valid things, in both cases the person offended/upset may be genuinely experiencing discomfort from an honestly and profoundly held position. Depending on the context I may or may not care and may or may not intend to do anything to ease that discomfort. I may just be saying that your response is making me sad.
I think however the person I was trying to discuss this with reads the same phrases as:
“I’m penitent that you decided to be vexed by my actions”
“I’m penitent that I caused you discomfort”
The first is obviously nonsense, as you can be penitent for someone elses behavior ( no matter what modern politicians try to claim), and thus it is a sorry excuse of an apology. So with a bit of discussion of the semantics we could possibly have determined that the confusion arose because they read both sets of statements as apologies, where as I only read the latter as an apology. If it were to have any meaning the former phrases couldn’t be apologies but could only be statements of regret. All of which hidden by just what particular meaning you ascribe to the words used, because English can be both very precise and remarkably vague ( not helped by the British habit of apologising for everything ).
So I regret that the points I was trying to make caused the other person to take offense and I apologise that I inadvertently vexed them. However one really can’t discuss the use and meaning of phrases without discussing both the semantics of the words used and the context in which they might be uttered.