The seven rules for a ‘proper’ apology: Debrett’s etiquette expert shares the phrases you should NEVER say including ‘I’m sorry if I upset you’ – and the ones you should use instead

  • Debrett’s advisor Liz Wyse revealed that you should always take responsibility for your actions and accept your part of the blame
  • She advises those apologising to reiterate what they have done wrong to make the apology more sincere, and says you can even offer a handwritten note
  • Says you should never include the phrase ‘if’ when you’re apologising 

Everyone knows apologies can be difficult, and some people find them trickier than others. 

Speaking to FEMAIL, an expert with etiquette bible Debrett’s has revealed the dos and don’ts to make your next ‘I’m sorry’ come across as sincere – and the phrases you absolutely should avoid.  

Many people fall into the trap of trying to shift the blame, even unknowingly, by slipping the word ‘if’ into their apologies. 

Saying ‘I’m sorry if I upset you’ does not carry as much weight as ‘I’m sorry I upset you’. 

Speaking to FEMAIL, an expert with etiquette bible Debrett’s has revealed the dos and don’ts to make your next ‘I’m sorry’ come across as sincere – and the phrases you absolutely should avoid. Stock image

She also explained apologies must never be given with conditions about what the other person should or shouldn’t do – it should all be about the person apologising taking full responsibility for their actions. 

As for the written note of apology, that should only be sent in cases where an individual has done something seriously wrong. And only after a verbal apology.    

Here, everything you need to know. 

Fully accept you are in the wrong

In most cases, it is a personal relationship at the heart of an apology. In order to take steps to repair this, the individual must first fully accept he or she has wronged.   

This is the case even if you do not understand fully what you have done. The other person’s reaction should be enough to signal the need for an apology. 

The case of Boris Johnson’s ‘partygate’ apology 

Apologies have been in the news this week with Boris Johnson trying to navigate the ‘partygate’ scandal, without fully admitting he was completely in the wrong. 

Liz explained in these exceptional cases, when there are massive legal or professional ramifications, apologies often come across as insincere because the individual is unwilling to fully accept they have been in the wrong, for fear of implicating themselves.   

She said: ‘In the era of the skillful, legally watertight apology, even a supposedly heartfelt “sorry” can sound hollow. 

‘Conditional wording or a lack of sincerity may risk inflaming, rather than resolving, a tricky situation.’

She added: ‘A sincere apology should always be offered when your actions have had a negative impact on other people. 

‘Even if you do not fully understand why someone is so upset, respect their feelings, and accept that your actions are the root of the problem.’

Never shift the blame 

The number one mistake people make is shifting the blame, making excuses or bringing the other person’s reaction under scrutiny, Liz explained.

‘Don’t pass the buck, or use your apology as a way of blaming someone else. 

‘Don’t plead mitigating or extenuating circumstances, or engage in retrospective regrets: “With hindsight, I should have…” 

‘Don’t argue that your misdeeds were essentially based on a misunderstanding of salient circumstances.’

Explaining an apology should never include the word ‘if’, she continued: ‘Take full responsibility for your actions.

‘Never ever use the phrase “I’m sorry if I offended/disappointed/enraged you.” You must fully own the fault – no ifs, not buts.’

Instead, simply say: ‘I am sorry I offended/disappointed/enraged you’. 

This validates the other person’s feelings and makes clear you understand you were the one responsible. 

Explain why you are sorry 

Rather than giving a blunt ‘sorry’, Liz explained that you sound more sincere and as though you have learned from your actions if you repeat the reason for your apology.

Liz explained: An apology will be much more persuasive if you acknowledge, and even reiterate, the nature of the fault: “I’m sorry I was so irritable last night” is more specific than a simple “I’m sorry”, and actually recognises the other person’s grievance.’

Debrett’s advisor Liz Wyse revealed that you should always take responsibility for your actions and accept your part of the blame, and never use the opportunity to make excuses or think in retrospect. Stock image

Never accuse 

An apology is pointless if it comes with conditions, Liz said, or if it heaps criticism on the person you are apologising to.

‘Never temper your apologies with accusations or insinuations’, she continued. 

‘It will negate the impact if an apology is immediately followed by self-justification or further criticism.’

If you’ve really wronged, send a note 

To take your apology a step further, or if you’ve really upset somebody, Debrett’s suggests sending a note – but only after you’ve apologised in person.

Liz said: ‘If you have committed a real faux-pas consider sending a handwritten note – but only after you have offered a verbal apology, otherwise it will look like cowardice.’

Don’t apologise willy-nilly 

Finally, in a case of the boy who cried wolf, Liz warns against using apologies lightly, explaining that they will lose their weight.

She said: ‘The British urge to apologise for other people’s actions is famous. If someone barges into you, a muttered ‘sorry’ is misplaced. 

‘Constant, needless apologising, when you are not the actual offender, devalues the currency, and will lessen the impact of a genuine, heartfelt mea culpa. 

‘It is important that you recognise when an apology is called for and that you sincerely acknowledge the magnitude of the offence.’ 

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