Aggressive "I'm sorry" (but not apologetic) Fake Apology attacks: Is this universal?

I notice that the average person seems to say “I’m sorry?” in a sort of fake question tone that veers between puzzled or contemptuous whenever they perceive they are insulted or hear something they don’t like. I guess it is an easy passive-aggressive way to fight back by making the person repeat their insult and then “lose the argument”, and it requires no intelligence to use. It seems annoying though and it seems to be very widespread.

Is this done in other languages or just an English speaking thing?

Is there a good counter to it?

“OMG Did I stutter???”

Since the person is essentially saying “That was so stupid, I want to see if you’re brave enough to repeat it”, I guess the “counter” is only saying things you feel confident enough about to repeat without hesitation.

Why do you need to counter it? Is it your intention to insult?

Pretty sure “I’m sorry” in this context is short for “I’m sorry, what was that?” Similar to “pardon me” (#3). The apology is for interrupting the flow of the conversation in order to seek clarification/verification regarding what was just said by the other person. This sort of thing is also routinely done in polite conversation when something said by the other person was genuinely not heard clearly; it’s not strictly reserved for asking jerks to repeat their rage-inducing statements.

So you could say “Sorry…?”, or you could say “pardon me?” or you could skip the apology and just say “holy living fuck, did you just say what I think you said?”

As for what to counter it with…that’s up to you. If you’ve deliberately uttered an insult (or something you feel should never be interpreted as insulting), feel free to repeat it and accept the consequences, whatever they may be. If their “sorry…?” makes you think that you may have inadvertently uttered an insult, seek enlightenment with an open mind, and be prepared to offer an apology for any offense or hurt you may have caused.

For instance, was hearing some of the old crank calls they used to play (jerky boys) and many times the insults were received with a “Im sorry?” fake question, since the caller clearly could physically hear, but somehow couldn’t psychologically. It just seems weird that they have to pretend to be deaf instead of accepting it is an insult.

Because what the prank caller actually said was so far from what was expected that the receiver couldn’t understand what was said. So they said “I’m sorry?” so they could hear again what they couldn’t understand the first time. (I listened to the Jerky Boys all the time)

It’s fairly easy to make someone do that, if you really want. Just say something totally off the wall during a normal conversation.

I thought it was making sure you heard what you thought you did or to give someone a chance to rephrase something in a less insulting manner.

Maybe this. I always thought it was to give the insulter an “out”; a sort of, “I know your mouth just got ahead of your brain-- I’m going to give it a chance to catch up.” If what the insulter says is “Nothing,” or something different from what was said before, then the asker can go on pretending not to have heard, and it’s a sort of covert apology and acceptance.

While I have never actually insulted anyone to their face since I was a child, I know there are times I have phrased things where they could be taken wrong, or where there was an unintended double entendre. I can’t think of an example off-hand, probably because I have excised such things from my memory, but if the person I’m speaking to says “I’m sorry?” or “Excuse me?” and then I realize what I just said, I can rephrase it.

OK, here’s kind of a lame one, but I remember once I said something was a “Boner,” in a context where it could be a sexual innuendo. Someone in the room who was really easily offended by such things turned beet red, and someone else said to me “What?” as though she genuinely didn’t hear, and I said “That was really a boneheaded mistake.”

Yeah, not a great example, and I can’t remember what the context was, but I appreciated the heads up from the other person.

I have done it. Someone once said “He Jewed me down,” in front of me, and I said “Excuse me?” and he changed his choice of phrase. I never mentioned it again.

Personally, I think it’s pretty useful.

So person A insults person B. Person B says, “I’m sorry? [As in, What did you say?]” And person A doesn’t have the balls to say it again… so person A is the aggrieved party?


I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that the target of an unexpected insult responding politely by assuming they must have misheard something is being framed as “contemtuous” “passive-aggressive” and “annoying”.

Who taught you manners?

The reason for this linguistic construction is that humans are very good pattern matchers, even when patterns do not really exist or are too noisy to hear. If you are listening to someone in a “noisy” environment (either literally audio noise or distractions or whatever) then your brain will attempt to make words out of what you hear, often with bizarre or comical results.

It’s definitely not passive-aggressive, it’s shorthand for “I’m sorry, I’m sure I didn’t hear you correctly, would you care to repeat it?”. It’s directly asking the person to clarify what they said (pretty much the opposite of passive-aggressive behavior) and is meant to stop actual misunderstandings or give the person delivering insults a chance to back out. If you’re listening to prank call recordings, it’s a combination of the person simply not believing what they’re hearing, since prank calls usually don’t follow conversational norms, and the person genuinely not being able to hear what was said. When someone records a prank call, generally they are recording from the caller’s microphone or a studio mic near the caller, then they do various processing to clean up the noise on the call and adjust volume levels, then you play it back through a speaker or headphones. When someone receives a prank call, they’re hearing it only through the speaker on their phone, which has more distorition than the origin mike from the line/signal quality, compression artifacts, and the like, so often they genuinely can’t hear what was said on the call.

True. The OP phrased his example as “winning a debate” so I took it that way. But, yeah, people also just ask in it a sincere and non-aggressive “I couldn’t have possibly heard that right” sort of way.

Well, it’s not always due to mishearing. There are also the cases where the person just heard something that they can’t believe was just said because it was entirely inappropriate in some way or another, and their “I’m sorry, I can’t possibly have heard that right” is a generous offer to the other person to allow them to rescind or restate their awful utterance, and thus avoid social stigma/summary execution.

I presume this is the type of “I’m sorry” that the OP is talking about, though calling it passive aggressive strikes me as an extremely odd way to look at it - as though the offending person has a sovereign right to be awful without consequence and thus anything but prompt agreement is an unjustified attack.

It’s intended to give the other person a chance to say something less stupid. Of course, once someone not only shows they’re braindead but insist on proving it, you do take their word for it.

The least polite version I’ve encountered was “were you born this stupid, did your mother drop you on your head when she shat you or do you practice daily?” More common without the middle part.

What I don’t get is why people who’ve been on the receiving end of one of those “I’m sorry(,are you really this much of a jerk)?” often manage to be surprised when the other party refuses to have continued contact with them. Why would anybody want to continue having contact with the kind of person whose stupidity is so deep it lowers the IQ of people around them?

There’s a Three Stooges episode where Curly is seated at a dinner party next to a wealthy dowager, with whom the familiar culture clash ensues.

Reacting to some faux paux by Curly, the dowager intones, “I beg your pardon?”

Curly responds, “Why? What’d ya do?”

The best ever was an old guy who pulled into a parking lot and cut me off on my bicycle, I had to swerve into the lot to avoid a head on collision in slow motion. He pulled up to a pump and I rode up and told him he almost killed me, 2-3 people in the lot backed me up.

All he said to me was, “I’m sorry if you think I did something wrong”.

“You’re welcome”.

How is what you wrote significantly different from “give the person delivering insults a chance to back out”? I don’t get how your reply fits with the material from me that you quoted, since you write the “always” like you’re correcting me, but go on to give a slightly more detailed phrasing of the ‘not due to mishearing’ possibility that I wrote about already.

This is the premise of a comedy bit that used to run on many Canadian radio stations, “The Champ”:

I have one on CD, “Hey, Champ, your wife’s got the greatest hits!” “Pardon?” “I said she’s got the greatest hits, how much did she pay for them?” I snap! I lose it! *>beats guy up< * "How’s that you idiot? Is that “Your wife’s got the greatest tits enough for ya?”

So, yeah, “I’m sorry?” is probably a good thing to say, before flying into a rage.