Sorry, I`m British or, Why do the British say `Sorry` so often?

If you are British `sorry` most certainly is not the hardest word to say. In fact, it may well be the most used, not to say over-used word in the British English lexicon. It would seem to be a national natural reflex and the word of first resort. But why? Why do the British say `sorry` quite so much? And, what do these rather odd people mean when we say it? In fact, do we mean anything at all or is it simply a functionless automatic reflex or even downright hypocritical cant?

Can you imagine yourself saying `sorry` when you`ve just walked into an inanimate object or when a stranger in the street has just walked smack-bang into you or when complaining to the waiter about an inedible and outrageously priced meal (this complaint would need to begin, end and be liberally interspersed with `sorrys`)? Possibly, but probably not. However, for your average British person, this is par for the course, that is to say: only natural indeed expected (although the inanimate object might forgive the omission, nobody else will).

One recent survey suggests that your average Briton feels the need to or, instinctively does, say `sorry` 8 times a day, and a good proportion of us up to 20. I, for instance, live alone with my 2 dogs, it is just after 10 o`clock in the morning and so far I have said `sorry` at least 4 times today! Once when asking my dog, who`s taking up all the space on my chair, if she could move a little bit, another on explaining to the same dog that, due to a slightly upset tummy, she could not have any treats, once on startling a pigeon on our morning walk and then again in incredulity at a blatantly false statement from a politician on BBC Radio 4`s Today programme. Now, this might seem slightly eccentric behaviour to you and possibly it is, slightly! However, what is clear is that I was not saying `I apologise because I have done something wrong or because I have caused you distress`, with the possible exception of the pigeon.

Something else is obviously going on here. The first thing to keep in mind is that language is very far from being simply a set of grammatical structures and a vocabulary that conforms to strict dictionary definitions. How we use language is shaped by many things, not least of all culture and context. Culturally speaking, Britons are shaped by what is broadly termed `negative politeness`. One of the key elements of this is `freedom from imposition`. The desire not to be imposed upon, to have our personal space (real, metaphorical or emotional) and privacy protected and respected and the consequent desire not to impose on others, to invade or intrude upon others or to unwittingly put them in a situation where they may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. By the way, the British are, as a general rule, highly prone to embarrassment. Next time you get the opportunity, watch one of them trying and all too frequently failing to catch the eye of a waiter!! All of this may well seem to be in stark contrast to the very obvious fact that the British did not appear to mind grossly imposing themselves on approximately one third of the globe in the form of the British Empire, but we will smoothly gloss over that contradiction and put it down to Dutch courage i.e. the disinhibiting effects of alcohol! Which brings us, appropriately enough, back to being very, very sorry indeed!

So whilst `sorry` certainly is used as an apology: `I`m terribly sorry for accidentally running over your cat` and as a condolence: `So sorry for the loss of your cat` as well as to introduce bad news: `Sorry to tell you but I`ve run over your cat`, it is also used as a sort of diffuser. What I mean here is that it is often used either in an attempt to diffuse or mitigate any potential unpleasantness or embarrassment, as in `sorry but you are standing on my foot` or `sorry, I hear what you say but I am not sure I agree with you` or `sorry, is anyone sitting  in this seat where you have put your bag?` The subtext of these being: `Get off my foot you oaf`, `You are a blithering idiot` and `move your bag unless you`ve bought a ticket for it too` `, respectively! It also expresses acknowledgment of the other, their privacy and personal space, to demonstrate that you are not trampling roughshod over that little metaphorical boundary they have constructed around themselves `sorry, do you mind if I sit here?` even though it is quite demonstrably a public space and you have every right to sit there, or `sorry, do you know the way to San Jose?` because you want to pre-empt any potential embarrassment at their being ignorant of the way to San Jose and, additionally, you have intruded upon their private going about their business and interrupted their thoughts. It can express empathy as well as sympathy, incredulity or confusion. It can mean `could you repeat that I didn`t hear?` or `you are going to be in big trouble if you say that again`. It can indicate the deepest regret or none whatsoever.

There we are, all clear? `Sorry` is the most multifunctional of words but, from the mouths of British English speakers, should seldom be taken too literally so observe the context in which it is being used is my best advice and follow this link to check a number of situations in which you most definitely should be using it ….. Study well and you never know, before long you too may well find yourself apologising to lampposts!

Categories: Vocabulary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *