Social Question

janbb's avatar

How do you feel when someone says "Sorry to hear that"?

Asked by janbb (42765 points ) August 21st, 2012

This may sound like a strange question but I have a reaction when I am telling someone about something painful that they might have caused and they say, “Sorry to hear that.” I consider it a brush-off. I would find “I’m sorry to hear that” much more meaningful. Am I overthinking things? Is this just common parlance or is it really a dismissal?

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32 Answers

jca's avatar

It’s not something I’ve ever thought about so I guess, to me, there’s no difference.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I don’t think it’s a brush off. “I’m sorry” implies a little more ownership of the pain. It takes more effort.

Leanne1986's avatar

@janbb I agree that adding I’m in front of “sorry to hear that” makes it sound much more sincere in the same way that adding I before “love you” makes it sound all the more genuine. You would say “love you” to your friends but I say ”I love you” to my partner. Like with most things though, it often depends on the tone of voice behind it and the persons body language.

janbb's avatar

@Leanne1986 This has been mainly in IMs or e-mails so it is hard to get a reading on tone.

Blackberry's avatar

There are some problems I really don’t care about.

I wouldn’t say this to you if you told me your dog died, but I would say it if you told me you ruined your favorite shirt.

Leanne1986's avatar

@janbb In that case I would put it down to slight laziness on the writers behalf.

majorrich's avatar

It depends on who I hear it from. If it is from someone like in HR or a Banker, I think it’s a bureaucratic way of saying “I don’t care how this is going to affect you, I am going to fuck you over anyway”. If if is coming from a police officer or a judge I think it’s their way of saying “I don’t care how this is going to affect you, I’m going to fuck you over anyway”. If it’s coming from the IRS or anyone in the Government, it means “I’m going to fuck you over even harder, maybe even twice because it’s going to affect you.”

gailcalled's avatar

I think that it was deliberately and carefully couched. Taking personal responsibility doesn’t require a PhD.

“Sorry to hear that” is vague and breezy and means very little.

zenvelo's avatar

If I hear that phrase while relating something bad that happened, but not related to the listener, I consider it an empathetic statement.

If I hear it while relating something the other person did, I would consider it a blow off, and would confront the person on what they intend to do to rectify the situation.

If I heard it in response to some excuse I made to authority, I’d expect a reaction like @majorrich describes.

janbb's avatar

@gailcalled That’s how I interpret it too.

ucme's avatar

When people say “I’m sorry for your loss” there’s just something about it that doesn’t sit well, I don’t even know why, it just seems irksome that’s all.

gailcalled's avatar

@janbb: You and I tend, historically, to agree.

janbb's avatar

@gailcalled And occasionally even histrionically.

Bill1939's avatar

The problem with stock social phrases is that no matter how well intended, they come off as hollow. As saying “How are you?” or “Have a nice day.” is a social convention, I think that “Sorry to hear that.” or “Sorry for your loss.” (with or without the I’m) are as well. I prefer to give the author of condolences the benefit of the doubt.

Trillian's avatar

@ucme I’m sorry you feel that way. (Ya see what I did there?)
Seriously, what else is one supposed to say? The loss does not affect me personally, yet I want to know the other person that I’m not completely indifferent to them and their feelings. Time and circumstances do not always allow for a long, drawn out remonstrance, nor would that always be appropriate, especially if the event does not affect me in any way other than to cause sadness to the person to whom I’m speaking.
If I tell a person that I’m sorry for their loss, that’s exactly what I mean. I generally don’t leave it at that, depending on the depth of the acquaintance, but at least I don’t toss around the sublimely lame “He’s in a better place.”
I know of no other way to express, in a few moments, that I empathize and sympathize with this person.

zenvelo's avatar

“I am sorry to hear that” or “I’m sorry for your loss” are actually good ways to show empathy without being obnoxious.

If you tell me “Oh, I know how you feel” you better have had exactly the same thing happen. People said that to a friend who had a mastectomy, she felt like hacking them with a knife so they’d really know how she felt.

As @Trillian points out, if you tell me “I’m sorry you feel that way” you are telling me my feelings are wrong.

marinelife's avatar

It is not an acknowledgement of any responsibility for your feelings nor it is an apology. I would find it annoying and hurtful too.

Seiryuu's avatar

I think that phrase has been used so much that it doesn’t mean much any more. However we’re accustomed to hearing that whenever we tell someone that something bad has happened to us that if someone didn’t say it we’d find them an apathetic prick.

That being said it’s more important to note how they are saying it rather than what they’re saying.

Shippy's avatar

I think people get lost for words, and that is an acceptable reply. I know I get scared I will put my foot in my mouth and say the wrong thing. So I do say that, and often. I would not say it is a dismissal at all.

Trillian's avatar

@zenvelo I wasn’t actually telling @ucme his feelings were wrong, I was just ribbing him a little and trying to get him to see it from a different perspective.
Also, I misread the original question and responded more to later posts. If it’s something that I did, I’d prefer a person to tell me rather than just let me wonder why they’re upset with me. That gives me a chance to either apologize and state what I really meant to say or do, or say “Yep, that’s what I meant to do. Suck it up”
I apologize, my earlier answer was meant as a response for someone telling me about something painful going on in their lives which has nothing to do with me.
I’m just going to go lie down now…

ucme's avatar

I think probably I have trouble with the word loss in this context, they’re not lost, they’re dead!!
Nothing wrong with expressing sympathy, particularly for someone grieving, just not using that word, not for me anyway.

Facade's avatar

It depends on their intentions. Some people are brushing you off, while others just don’t know ho to express themselves. There’s no blanket way to look at it, really.

josie's avatar

On the other hand, it might be argued that it is better than saying nothing at all. Not everyone is an eloquent minister of the language.

gailcalled's avatar

“Sorry to hear that” is perfectly acceptable if you dented your bumper. spilled a jar of honey, or forgot your cat’s birthday. It implies awareness of something annoying but not earth-shattering.

janbb's avatar

@gailcalled But how about if you said you were upset by the e-mail they sent you?

gailcalled's avatar

See my earlier comment. I thought it was inappropriate and dismissive.

Wash her out of your hair.

Trillian's avatar

And send her on her way….

6rant6's avatar

There’s a lot of overlap between apologies and expressions of sympathies. When you owe an apology, I think either of the alternatives you offered falls short. That being said, I suppose someone might use them to express regret and contrition. If you have more people in your life than you need, then by all means, get pissed off. If you are trying to fill sots, maybe try to take it as apologetically as possible.

Me, of course, I’d hit them over the head.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I’ve rarely found “I’m sorry to hear that” to be particularly sincere, mainly based on tone, especially if it’s in the context of an apology, but whether the “I’m” is actually there or implied makes no difference. If the “I’m” is at least always implied, how does actually adding it on somehow change the statement from obvious dismissal to sincere ownership?

whitenoise's avatar

I think it’s not the wording, but the delivery that is most important.

I have had people comfort me, that said nothing but where clearly ‘there’ and sincere in their body language and overall presence and actions. And… I’ve had people that were elaborately expressing their sympathy that gave me shivers.

I guess some people really mean it when they say ‘oh and please do come by, the next time you’re in town’ and some would be utterly upset of you really do.

janbb's avatar

@whitenoise That makes a great deal of sense.

janbb's avatar

Update: I think this hit a nerve in this instance because I have a narcissistic ex-friend who used to write that very insincerely. In this case, I talked to the person later in the day – not specifically about that phrase – and we worked on the issue.

I wasn’t stewing over the phrase but wondering how it hit other people.

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