I didn’t mean it that way

January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments

Earlier this week, Alabama’s governor-elect Robert Bentley made a true political gaffe. During his inaugural speech, he entirely alienated his non-Christian constituents when he made this little statement:

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said. ”But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.”

Bentley added, ”Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”


Later, on Wednesday, governor-elect Bentley apologized for his faux pas:

“What I would like to do is apologize. Should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If you’re not a person who can say you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader,” Bentley said.

When I woke up and listened to the radio station today, the morning show host said that Bentley issued a statement saying that he didn’t mean what he said when he made his remarks on Monday afternoon. My ears perked up–why, not meaning what we say? That’s an issue I take great…issue…with! So, I went about my normal daily routine, turning this topic over and over, promising myself that I would blog about it as soon as I got home and could do so (and as soon as I added pages to my dissertation chapter I’m working on). It’s now 10:25 p.m., I’m finally sitting down to write my blog, and when I start digging around for quotes on “not meaning what he said,” I discover that my radio announcer made himself a little mistake. Turns out that the governor-elect actually did apologize for his words and did not offer just a lame little excuse for his miscommunication. Shame on you, radio, shame on you. Lamenting my blog post turned moot, I complained to Robert at 10:20 p.m. that I had a post left to write and no topic left to write on. Of course, I married a genius, because Robert said, “Well, no! You actually do have a topic. You can still write about how that phrase is used instead of an apology since the guy on the radio made that statement.”

Good point!

So, the blog post is back on, folks!

Here’s my question: when apologizing for a wrongdoing, a miscommunication, poorly chosen words, have we gotten to the point where we apologize by mere back-peddling? And are we apologizees (those recipients of the apology, of course) okay with this method of apologizing?

And here’s my answer: yes and sometimes.

When someone misspeaks and ultimately hurts someone else’s feelings, the typical response is, “I didn’t mean it like that. You misunderstood me. Don’t take it like that.” It just reminds me of, “No offense, but….” What? No offense, but you’re about to insult me? You didn’t mean what you just said, so we’re all cool now?

Sorry, but this chicky would much prefer those who are extending an apology to actually extend the freaking apology.

“I didn’t mean it that way” suggests, to me, two things:

1. I am a dirty liar and words come out of my mouth in the form of lies. So, when I called you a bitch (for instance), I was lying because I don’t actually think you’re a bitch.

2. I am a dirty liar and a damn coward. So, when I called you a bitch (for instance), I was telling the truth but now I’m lying by telling you that I didn’t mean it in the first place. Truth is, I meant it, I just don’t like that it pissed you off and I don’t want to deal with the consequences of my behavior.

I was raised in the House of Saying What You Intend To Say The First Time.

“I hate you!” was a phrase I savored in my mouth; the way it rolled around on my tongue and burst out of my mouth to the utter shock of my sister (for instance) was startling to me and a little bit exhilarating. I had the power of words! I could say things that would have an immediate impact on someone else’s feelings. I wielded big linguistic weapons.

That high didn’t last for long.

“Amanda,” my mother or father would intone with as much warning of imminent danger dripping from their own words as they could manage. I shivered. My parents also had power. They also could affect an immediate reaction in me by simply stating my name. I hated my name. But, man, it was mighty strong in the mouths of my parents. “You apologize to your sister right now. Words have meaning, you know. If you say you hate someone, you are saying that you wish they were never born. Do you wish your sister would drop dead right this second?” The mere image brought tears to my eyes. “No…” I would sob pitifully. “Then apologize,” they demanded. There was no question about the word choice.

If I said, “I didn’t mean it. You took it the wrong way,” then I was sure to get another talking to. And, sure enough, just as though I were hard-wired for it (which I’m pretty sure I am), I said, “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What other way could you have meant it,” my father asked.

Well, now, that’s a great question, Dad. I guess I meant it in the “please don’t punish me for screaming at my little sister because she was breathing my air” way.

Yeah, not good enough.

With my parents’ help and guidance, I eventually learned to choose my words carefully and to apologize with even greater care. “Words are like bullets,” my grandmother used to tell me, “once they’re out of your mouth, you can never take them back.” So true. Words, she was explaining in just the right kind of shocking simile, can never be un-said. You can’t just wave the air and wipe them away. “I didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t make a lick of sense to someone like me. If you didn’t mean it, then why on Earth would you say something like that?

Why does it not make for a good apology, then? Well, simple. It redirects the blame back onto the victim. Take my second example, where I blasted my sister with the horrible “I hate you” phrase…for which I have apologized many times (and, just for good measure: I’m really sorry I ever said that to you, Lauren. I love you and am so glad we’re close). When I said, “I didn’t mean it like that,” I am essentially telling her, “You are wrong about the way you interpreted and feel about my words. It’s your fault that you feel so shitty because you obviously didn’t get my meaning.” How many you’s are in that sentence? I count at least five you’s to two my’s. Sounds pretty one-sided to me.

Making a real apology, however, the kind that really hurts to make…those are the only ones that I take seriously and that I even accept. I have been known to actively not accept a fake apology of “I didn’t mean it.” If you didn’t mean it, you wouldn’t have said it. Or are you a dirty liar? Either way, I’m not accepting until you come back with something better.

I am appalled by the language of governor-elect Bentley–he should not have said it, but the fact of the matter is that he did say it. Rather than say what the radio misquoted (that he didn’t mean it…or also as bad, he shouldn’t have said it), Bentley actually said, “I apologize.” It hurts to say “I apologize.” I still struggle with it. We were raised not to say “I’m sorry” because it implies that one is in a sorry state…as in an impoverished state. So, my parents raised us to say “I apologize.” But I still have trouble with it…so I still say “I’m sorry,” especially when I really mean it because saying “I apologize” is too painful. I’ll grow up eventually, I’m sure…it’s something I’m working toward. But I respect Bentley for being man enough to say those two words and for not taking the easy way out of it.

“I didn’t mean it that way” or even “I shouldn’t have said that”…those are such lame non-apologies. I would recommend all apologizees (those receiving the apology, remember) to hold the apologizers in our lives accountable for their words. Force them to own up to what they say. If they hurt you, let them know it and make them take responsibility for the hurt. On the flip side, if you hurt someone, take responsibility. Be a grown-up and actually apologize for the hurt. Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” No “if” necessary–if you actually hurt someone, you probably already know. “I’m sorry that I hurt you” is a good start, followed by, “I was wrong to speak out of anger. I hope you can forgive me.” Simple as that. No excuses necessary.

What say ye, Interwebs? Shall we make this a movement, or is ol’ A.Hab. chasing after a…well, you know?

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§ 5 Responses to I didn’t mean it that way

  • AMo says:

    Can’t argue with your reasoning. I think you’re right. But I also think it depends on what the hurt was, and the relationship between apologizer and apologizee. For instance, when a new man I’m dating says something mean about my home city and I recoil and then come back with a counterpoint that indicates his wrong-headed thinking, and then he says, “I didn’t mean in that way,” he is probably backpeddling and doing what you describe in order to deflect blame. But, do I care? No, not really, because that just becomes another reason not to see him again, so that statement is actually a great mark of someone’s character. Now, would I expect to receive a real aplology from a true friend? Absolutely. But maybe in my over-confidence, I’m assuming that my true friendships are all strong enough to allow for that. Great post, my friend! πŸ™‚

    • Mrs. H. says:

      That’s exactly my point. πŸ™‚ If a man says “I didn’t mean it that way” to deflect blame, that’s a point against his character which tells you a lot about his maturity. it might be asking a lot of the general population to take responsibility for the words that pop out of their mouths, but wouldn’t you have respected that man a great deal more (and, in fact, wouldn’t he at least have increased his chances to remain in the running) if he had taken a moment to recognize the hurt and say, “That was unfair of me to say. I’m sorry I said that”? (And let me point out the stupidity of hurting your date’s feelings on the first date. Way to completely throw opportunity out the window, buddy! Lol.)

      Also, I know a number of your true friends, and I think those friendships are strong enough to handle the expectation of accountability. πŸ™‚

  • Tim says:

    While I do actually encounter instances where someone takes something I said in a manner completely different than I meant it, I still apologize for hurting them, immediately acknowledge how what I said could have been interpreted that way, and then use the miscommunication as an opportunity for discussion so that the air is clear and we both have a greater understanding of each other when we walk away.

    Certainly, just saying, “I didn’t mean it like that” is insufficient. Anyone throwing that out needs to be prepared to back it up with evidence, and still willing to eat the “shame” of apologizing. It’s good that the AL governor didn’t actually say that, though…it would be pretty much impossible to back that claim up.

  • Robert says:


    I totally agree with you. There are lots of times–especially considering my own case of foot-in-mout-disease–that I will say something that ends up being misinterpreted in the moment and becomes hurtful when there was no intended malice. At all. I’m really quick to say a kind of hybrid apology when my words go awry: “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean it like that” or something along those lines. Lord knows there were some misinterpreted lines during our wedding planning that, I think, hurt my super-awesome mother-in-law. Did I mean to be hurtful? Of course not. Did what I say get misinterpreted? Yes. Did I mean what I said? Yes, just not in the way it was interpreted. If memory serves correctly, I apologized and explained myself, and everything is super cool now with me and the in-laws.

    As for this Governor Bentley bullshit…what I hate is that he didn’t *really* apologize for anything. He was sorry that he may have offended anybody but he has come out and said that he was “using the language of his evangelical faith.” Even though I definitely do not agree with the Gov.’s views–I sure-as-shit didn’t vote for him–at least he is being up front about who he is. I can respect that. But I do not respect the fact that he hides behind the rhetoric of his faith to justify hateful, condescending, divisive speech. I understand that having Talivangelist political leaders is par for the course–having lived here my whole life, they are either corrupt, crazy bible-weilding christians, or the less-than-occasional mixture of the two. That doesn’t mean that I have to like, or that I can’t correctly criticize a political leader for his obviously misguided words and actions.

    But it’s ok. I have no want to be his brother. I prefer the distanced anonymity that being estranged strangers allows.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I think the apology as a form of avoiding conflict is all too common. There is no sincerity there, if your “sorry” is simply meant to calm waters and not actually because you are remorseful. I think his apology would have been accepted a little better if it went along the lines of “I stand by my Christian faith, but I can see that the way in which I spoke of that faith was insulting. I apologize for not choosing my words more carefully.”

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