Something which has been continuously been brought to my attention by non-British is that we, as a nation, like to apologise excessively. Whether we’re apologising for asking a question, for an item that’s out of stock or as a way to squeeze pass on the bus, you can be sure that an average Brit will apologise more times in their life in unnecessary situations, than in circumstances which truly call for it.
One thing that us Brits pride ourselves on, is on our ability to maintain a public illusion of courtesy by sticking closely to the unspoken rules of social etiquette. And if there’s one key word which you’ll hear being dribbled from the English mouth in the process, you can be sure that it’s this: sorry.
‘Sorry’ is probably one of the most descriptive yet hollow words in the English language. It can signal the direction that a conversation is going to take, whilst retaining very little intrinsic meaning. Growing up in Britain, you knew that when your teacher began to address your class with ‘Right, I’m sorry…’ to embrace yourself for a scolding, or that when sharing your woes with a friend, who replies ‘I’m sorry to hear that’, that perhaps they’re finding this conversation just a tad bit awkward and don’t really know what to say back.
Apologising is our safe key, a social tick box, because 99% of the time people won’t get offended by apologising– regardless of whether you truly mean it or not. In fact it might just be the case that people like to hear another individual assuming responsibility, even if it’s not their fault. As the old saying goes, ‘better you than me’.
So yes, the word ‘sorry’ is probably one of the most meaningless, overused words in the English language, with no real direct equivalent when translated into other languages and utilised in other cultures. Living in Sicily over the last couple of months, I’ve been told that I apologise too much, which I can only justify as a result of years of drilled in social protocol seeping into my Italian. Asking a shop assistant a question, I would begin with ‘mi scusi’, but I’ve quickly come to learn that politeness isn’t overdone here. Believe it or not, if you have a question you sound much less ridiculous to start with ‘ascoltami’ (listen to me) than to waste an unnecessary breath, apologising for someone’s job description.
Sorry Brits, someone had to say it. Better me than you eh?