Is ‘sorry’ a word used just as an apology for when you have done something wrong?
One of the fascinating things about the word ‘sorry’ is that it has many shades of meaning in British English.
It is not just a way to apologise, and the meaning can depend on context, the relationship with the people we are speaking to, and the tone of voice.
‘Sorry’ is used as a linguistic flag to cover a range of situations, so here I share how to interpret and use the word ‘sorry’ effectively when communicating with the British in key situations when you need to be diplomatic, especially when you do not know the other people well, in formal situations and when the stakes are high.
Awkward situation or delivering a negative message: this is the most common use of ‘sorry’ in a business situation. It is not an apology, but a word to indicate that there this is challenging communication. It is delivered in a definite, strong and punctuated tone. For example, ‘Sorry, but it looks like there might be a delay’.
Disagreement: this critical way to disagree is definitely not apologising! The word is used to soften the disagreement and make it less personal and confrontational. For example, ‘Sorry, but I am not sure I agree with you’. Similarly, in this type of situation we also can say ‘I’m afraid’. For example, ‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple’.
Challenging somebody else’s point of view or trying to persuade them to agree to your request: here the ‘sorry’ helps smooth the challenge and reduce the conflict, or in persuasion situations indicates you are approaching the request sensitively. For example. ‘Sorry, can I just check there is no possibility you can get back to me this week?’
Interrupting somebody: in conversations when somebody wants to jump in when somebody else is talking, inserting the word ‘sorry’ flags they are coming into the conversation to express their opinion. Just like negative situations, the ‘sorry’ is delivered in a definite, strong tone. For example, ‘Sorry to interrupt, but I feel quite strongly about this and have a point to add here.’
Confusion: interestingly ‘sorry’ by itself can also have a questioning tone and accompanying confused facial expression to indicate that you are not clear or sure what is happening. It invites the other person to express their point again to clarify.
Getting somebody’s attention: in this context ‘sorry’ is said with a rising tone to get the attention of somebody physically nearby, whose name we do not know, for example in restaurants to get the waiter’s attention.
When you did not hear what was just said: in a meeting context or on the phone ‘sorry’ is used with a questioning tone to invite the other person to repeat themselves. It is similar to ‘excuse me’.
You are in my way: finally, as life continues to get back to normal in the UK, public transport gets busier and tourists return to London, you will start to hear ‘sorry’ more frequently, as Londoners rush past!
I hope this has given you a good flavour for the full range of shades of the word ‘sorry’. This exploration is one of the many ways you can effectively communicate, connect and build positive interactions with British teams, and forms part of my English Meeting communication programme and also features in my British culture training.
Would you like to find out more about how my coaching and training can support you to be more effective, get better business results and build stronger relationships with British teams?
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