I’ve written before about how the word ‘just’ can be used insidiously to downplay things – ‘just a hobby’ ‘just a bit of fun’… today it’s the word ’if’ that I want to scrutinise. It’s a very small word that can have massive impact.
For example… I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way. I’m sorry if that caused offence. I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. I’m sorry if you feel that way.
The carefully deployed ‘if’ can have a number of impacts. It can create uncertainty – which may undermine what someone else was saying. It suggests the person iffing isn’t confident about whether there really is a problem. Often it also functions to gently shift the balance of responsibility over to the other person, indicating that the person doing the iffing isn’t responsible for how anyone else has taken things. It’s the language of minimising and downplaying issues.
As with my above examples, using ‘if’ this way is also part of making a non-apology. This is where you say something that has the words of apology in it but fails to do the job. “I’m sorry if you were upset by that” is not an apology – it recognises no responsibility for harm caused, no regret and no desire to fix things. It’s a statement to get a person off the hook, not to resolve a situation or undo harm done.
The specific use of ‘if’ is not a thing you can easily call someone on in a conversation. It’s such a small word that you might not even notice it go by. But if you come out of conversations feeling like you’ve not been heard and respected and you don’t know why… if it always seems to be your fault and you can’t pin down how that’s been expressed… there may be iffing involved.