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.