Have you ever encountered a situation in which, upon hearing that some misfortune has befallen a friend or acquaintance (a breakup, a death in the family, a lost wallet), you’ve felt compelled to say something like “I’m so sorry” to that friend or acquaintance? Have you ever, then, had your friend or acquaintance turn to you and say, “Oh, well, it’s not your fault”?
How can it be possible that this ridiculous exchange, in which one person expresses sadness over some cruel “act of God” for which it’s obvious that no one present is responsible and the other person nonsensically reassures him that he’s not to blame for what happened, still exists? It’s the year 2016—do we not all know by now what the word “sorry” means?
Here it is, straight from the dictionary: “feeling sorrow.” I feel sorrow; therefore, I am sorry. In some circumstances, it may be used in a way that implies penitence, but that isn’t the primary definition. Even so, in roughly one out of every five cases where the word is intended to express general mournfulness without any suggestion of culpability, it’s received as some kind of bizarre misplaced apology.
I can only speculate on why people continue to respond to it that way. Here are some possibilities:
Some people genuinely are confused about what the word means.
Some people know that you’re not trying to take responsibility for what occurred, but by reacting in protest against this imagined idea, they’re attempting to imply (subtly) that you actually were to blame for their misfortune: they don’t know how you did it, but to them, somehow, it feels like it was your fault. They may just hate you.
Some people are unable to experience empathy and thus can’t fathom the idea that you would “feel sorrow” over something that didn’t happen to you; therefore they are capable of understanding the phrase “I’m sorry” only as a sort of childish verbal gift proffered in exchange for a wrongdoing, the main part of the transaction of their false repentance—it can’t ever be a non-self-involved gesture of actual feeling.
Some people are so empathetic that they feel empathy for your empathy: i.e., they can sense that you feel bad that they feel bad, and even though their own bad feeling is clearly the primary subject in the exchange, they now feel bad for you and want to reassure you that the bad thing that caused their bad feeling doesn’t involve you and thus you needn’t feel bad—even though, in the same situation (as a friendly bystander to an unrelated misfortune), they themselves would surely feel even worse than you do, given their extraordinary empathy.
Some people believe that the stock phrase “I’m so sorry” is not communicative of any authentic empathy, and by replying snottily that it’s “not your fault,” they seek to emphasize your remove from the situation: it has nothing to do with you, so stop pretending.
There exists no obvious good way to receive empathy: to say “thank you” in response to an “I’m so sorry” is to reduce that signal of compassion to a token gesture, like the “have a nice day” at the end of a retail transaction. By affirming that the misfortune was no one’s fault, they invite you to contemplate the hardship philosophically with them—as one of many random tragedies in an indifferent and chaotic universe—instead of walling it off as a private misfortune.
As the recipient of a friend’s sorrow, I don’t know exactly how I’d react—as nothing bad has ever happened to me, I’ve not yet received a condolence. I believe, however, that I’d probably go with “thank you,” which strikes me as overly dignified and slightly antisocial, but at least it kind of makes sense.