Apr 212009

I have to remember not to say ‘sorry’ too much in the States. Of course, the word exists here, but transferring my British ‘sorry’ habits would make me sound rather peculiar.

Sorry’ is a tricky word because it can imply so many different things – mishearing, acceptance of guilt or responsibility or simply just empathy. So for example, I could say sorry to a grieving relative at a funeral without implying I was in anyway responsible for polishing off the deceased.

But I think where we differ in the UK is we’re very sensitive to anything that could intrude, so the slightest whiff of imposition and we blurt out ‘sorry’. In fact we even seem to say sorry when other people impose on us.

The anthropologist Kate Fox conducted some entertaining experiments on the English sorry reflex. She went round bumping into passersby in busy crowded places like train stations and shopping centres to see how many people would say sorry. Even though the collision was clearly her fault, about 80% of English people said ‘Sorry’. Then she tried it on Americans, French, Belgians, Italians, Russians, Polish, Lebanese, Spanish, Japanese, Australians and Scandinavians. Most said ‘Careful’ or ‘Watch out’ and many were very nice about it and held out a steadying hand. But only the Japanese (another negative politeness culture) came close to saying ‘Sorry’. She claims they were frustratingly difficult to experiment on though, because they were terribly good at jumping out of the way.

 Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviourby Kate Fox is a terrific source for the hidden rules of English behaviour. She’s very entertaining, but very insightful too.

 Posted by at 12:59 am

  6 Responses to “Sorry, I’m English”

  1. As someone who is British in America you clearly have got to a point (maybe a long tome ago) when you know you are saying things the “wrong” way – wrong for your new culture and wrong for your native instinct.
    What do you do? Conform? Abandon your ‘nativeness’?
    And why?
    Are we at an economic disadvantage if we retain our old ways, a social disadvantage, or is it something else?
    is it possible to take a middle road, abandon that which is not AS “good” and keep that which is “better”?

  2. I don’t think compromise is an option in a lot of situations, Chris. I have to choose one or the other.
    If it’s mission critical or the easy route, I’ll often conform. It’s often the easiest path. Why cheese off the official by making British wisecracks? It’s just not worth the hassle.
    But with friends it’s different. And I don’t have to conform. There’s tolerance for (and even enjoyment of) differences then.
    I think there is social disdvantage if we don’t understand the differences and so we can’t judge the likely effects of our actions before the event. I think we’re probably talking about identity issues here?

  3. Spanish Language Online…

    5. Choose your approach for newspapers, radio, and TV. It’ s a good idea to have your message well- crafted before approaching the media. My approach was to pitch the story as a local effort that was having a significant impact on a major international…

  4. […] Clegg says sorry  Politeness  Add comments Sep 212012   I’ve mentioned elsewhere that British apologies can be very routine speech acts that mean, well, nothing apologetic really. […]

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