When it comes to the differences between saying, “Excuse me!” and “I’m sorry!” I will be using English as my reference point. For me, as a United States English speaker, I often say “Excuse me!” to get someone’s attention while using “I’m sorry!” if I do something wrong.
And so that’s my basic rule for the differences between “Sumimasen (すみません)!” and “Gomennasai (ごめんなさい)!”, respectively. If I need to get someone’s attention, interrupt their current task, or get by somebody in a crowded area, then I will use すみません. If I need to apologize for a mistake I’ve made, I’m late to a meeting, or I bump into somebody, then I use ごめんなさい.
However, for the Japanese usage you should use “Excuse me!” for other things too. It’s considered polite when entering a room to say, “すみません!” As in, knocking and saying the expression at the same time. Students at school in Japan are expected to say the higher form of すみません which is “Shitsureshimasu (しつれいします)!” If you’re a teacher though, it’s not expected for you to say the phrase to the same people on your level, but it is considered polite for those above you such as the principal.
Also, すみません and ごめんなさい are expected after taking away someone else’s time. For example, let’s say you needed to have someone help you with a project. After they’ve helped you, it’s often considered common courtesy to say, “すみません! Arigatougozaimasu (ありがとうございます)!” as in “Excuse me (for taking up your time)! Thank you!” You’re expected to say this even after having already used すみません or ごめんなさい at the beginning of the conversation. For Westerners, it might feel a bit strange to use “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry” so much in a short span of time, but politeness is a big part of Japanese culture. In this sort of usage, すみません and ごめんなさい can be used interchangeably.
Many times you’ll find yourself either using the phrases together or interchangeably when walking about town. For example, when I mentioned my basic rule of bumping into someone, I said that I will often use “ごめんなさい!” because it comes more naturally to me. Please note though that in those sorts of small infractions, it doesn’t really matter whether you use either すみません or ごめんなさい. Small, little accidents aren’t a big deal, and so long as you get the message across that it was an accident, no one will mind which phrase you use.
But in general, you’ll find in Japan that people will use すみません and ごめんなさい way more than in Western cultures. It’s often noted that ex-pats who return home from living in Japan will still say “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” to an excessive extent, despite being out of the country. Essentially, there is no such thing as using these phrases too much while in Japan. Being humble and having humility are great traits to have in Japan.
That all being said, you don’t need to use すみません and ごめんなさい as often with very close friends and family. If you want say I’m sorry, you can shorten it to just “ごめん!” with people you know really well. Friends will get a little put off if you’re constantly apologizing to them all the time. At first, it’s expected while getting to know each other, but once you’re seeing each other regularly then don’t worry so much about it.
I hope this clears up the vagueness between these two phrases! Next time I’ll talk about some useful phrases for dating in Japan.
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