Courtesy Gone Wild: A Copywriter’s View

Overuse dilutes the value of "sorry"—and if there's anything copywriters hate, it's meaningless words. Here's why there's no reason to say you're sorry unless you mean it.


I hear it in the changing room, the 6 train, the office. It comes from the woman that’s using her locker, stepping onto the subway, reaching for coffee, and doing absolutely everything she ought to do—in tight quarters. It’s polite, courteous, a pleasantry. But boy does it grate on my nerves.

“I’m sorry.”

I got one this morning. Sorry, she said, as she retrieved her towel from the yoga detritus spread out on the bench. My detritus; her towel. Why was she sorry?

The (Sorry) Cult of Sorry

To a no-filter copywriter hell bent on authenticity, a breezy sorry raises a scarlet flag. It’s “You’re in my way, but I’ll do the apologizing for both of us.” In line with Sloane Crossley’s Times Op-Ed, it marks non-direct assertion, a passive aggressive invitation for the recipient to apologize. (In the pilot of CBS’ Supergirl, the key character pauses to divest herself of this compulsion.)

For some, it may just be a thoughtless cultural lubricant, as in: “This will expedite what I want with minimal fuss.” Or: “I mean you no harm; somehow we ended up in the same space.” While visiting Minneapolis, I once got nervous looks and fumbling apologies when I rolled my cart within two feet of some fellow shoppers. I smiled back, not sorry at all.

Of course, it’s also possible my apologizers are truly sorry: for the interruption, for our entanglement, for the overall shortage of space.

I just don’t want sorry to lose its meaning.

Sorrying Under the Influence

A proper sorry is when you stomp a toe or a feeling, are saddened by a sickness or breakup or death. The sorry I grew up with comes with damage or hurt or harm—and at least a modicum of intent.

“I’m so sorry! I have to reschedule,” I emailed a colleague once. Two decades older, her response was instant—and insistent. Never say you’re sorry. Never? I thought. But her admonition stuck.

As a woman, I consciously fight an age-old, primitive drive to avoid taking up space: in physicality, in intellect, in will, in complication. As a first generation Chinese, I was raised with an emphasis on consensus. My brother—articulate, agreeable, opinionated—says “sorry” frequently to mean, “excuse me, you didn’t understand my meaning.”

A quick survey reveals all of this to be a bit divisive. “I like sorry a lot more than ‘my bad’; I HATE that,” rants a food publicist buddy. “It’s okay; you don’t have to be sorry,” is the line my sister-in-law gets—and she simmers gently, I’m not. “I just say it in place of ‘excuse me,’” says one of our copywriters (female, millennial). “It works in the U.S., but doesn’t translate off-shore.”

My favorite is that the Urban Dictionary defines “sorry I’m not sorry” as follows:

“Commonly used Canadian phase, born out of the excessive usage of ‘sorry,’ this statement allows the user to conform with the sintax [sic] of apology, but indicate that he is, in fact, not sorry. […] Often used in situations where an undue amount of judgement or prejudice is being applied. A simple, direct way to tell the person their feelings/thoughts/opinions aren’t changing your mind and you will not apologize.”

Hear hear!! Let’s scrape sorry up from its muck, brush it off, shine it up, and put it on its rightful shelf. Sorry I’m not sorry—and I don’t mean that in any particular syntax. Just the facts.

Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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