In times when a friend tells you some sad news, our first response is to say how sorry we are. That's without question the right thing to say. But what if you don't know the person telling you the sad news, is saying sorry the right thing to say?
The word sorry has an unusual impact on us personally, because it is just that, a personal word. When we use it, our brain tends to recall the event later as we sit and reflect on our day. Think now about the last time you used the word sorry, I suspect that you can and that you remember the circumstances as to why you said it.
The word sorry has also become commonplace, we use it a lot therefore it has lost some of its meaning. For some, the word sorry has become the 'go to' word for every time that they make a mistake and because of this it sounds disingenuous.
So what you should say if a stranger tells you some sad news? If you use the word sorry, then ensure that you finish the sentence off properly with something like "...to hear that has happened to you", or "...to hear that (repeat their message)."
For example, a person who you don't know tells you that their friend died. You could say "I am sorry to hear that your friend has died." Or, "I am sorry to hear that this has happened to you." This sounds a little more genuine and will stop you reflecting on the conversation later on.
I try not to use the word sorry when someone who I don't know tells me sad news. The reason is simple, I do not know the person therefore saying sorry may sound trite. It may also provoke anger in the other person as they retort "You shouldn't be sorry, you don't know me or who I'm talking about."
Instead, I will try to say something like "I can't imagine what that must be like", or "That must be terribly difficult", or "The loss of someone is never easy is it", or "Are you coping okay with everything?" Then I leave a gap and wait for the other person to talk.
On most occasions, the other person will respond by telling me how they feel. They may even shed a tear or two, and that is a good thing. If they do cry, say to them "Take your time". They will usually take a breath and regain control and be able to move on.
It is important to acknowledge an emotion in our daily conversations. There is a saying in crisis negotiating - 'Acknowledging an emotion disarms it' - and it does. It helps the other person having someone acknowledge the situation and/or emotion that they find themselves stuck in. And, it also helps you by making you feel good about being able to help someone in their difficult time.
We are humans and for most of us, it's all about our emotions.