Gosh, Sorry: Over-apologetic Brits in America

Are you guilty of over apologizing? (MOTR)

According to Debretts (the modern authority on all matters of etiquette, social occasions, people of distinction and fine style, don’t you know), “For many British people, apologizing is a default reaction to life’s little irritants. If someone barges into you, treads on your toes or spills your drink, it is considered quite normal for the victim to mutter ‘sorry’. This is clearly illogical, but for many British people it is an ingrained response.”

Guilty as charged. A few years ago I was walking through airport security when one of the officers pointed out that I had money sticking out of my jacket pocket. Much to her amusement, the first words out of my mouth weren’t “Thank you” or “Oh, bloody hell” but “Sorry.” I know, embarrassing eh? Alas, also typically British. We apologize even when we don’t need to.

“Sorry, could you pass the salt, please?”

“Sorry, but you’re standing on my foot.”

Even, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to apologize.”

And let’s not forget simply “Sorry?” when we haven’t quite heard someone.

A popular quote on the British People Problems list was “I apologize for not smoking when someone asks me for a light” and indeed many Brits can picture themselves in that situation.

This enlightening post by our very own BBC claims that our top reasons for using the “S” word are:

• When we don’t have time to speak to someone or do something (“Sorry, I don’t have time to talk right now.”)

• To apologize on someone else’s behalf, such as our children, a partner or a colleague (“Sorry, little Jimmy is always smashing things.”)

• When we didn’t hear what someone was saying (“Sorry, can you repeat that?”)

• When we want something to be explained again (“Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.”)

• When we actually feel the need to apologize for having double-crossed, lied to or let someone down – “I’m sorry.”

The article also tells of a study concluding that Brits will utter the word “Sorry” a staggering 1.9 million times in their lifetime. Wha? So, if you live to be 85, you’ll have 31,025 days under your belt and will have said “sorry” approximately 61 times per day. Hmmmm…

Needless to say the ever–present “Sorry” sometimes sounds a little odd to Americans, although they don’t get off Scot-free either. Americans often apologize for things that are totally out of their control, which struck me as a tad excessive in my early years here. In keeping with dictionary definitions however, “sorry” is used in the U.S. to express empathy or sympathy, as in “I’m so sorry you broke your ankle” or “I’m sorry your car was stolen” and involves no sentiments of guilt or penitence.  (The response is “Thank you” rather than “That’s not your fault” by the way.)

So Brits, at least while in the States, liberate yourselves from the constant apology. You have permission from Debretts: “The urge to apologize for other people’s actions is clearly misplaced; constant, needless apologizing devalues the currency, and will lessen the impact of a genuine, heartfelt mea culpa.”

Sorry to be the one to bring this to your attention! 

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

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  • MontanaRed

    Loved this column, Toni. I do have a technical question, though: When Americans use “excuse me” instead of “sorry” (as when moving through a crowd), do Brits find that in any way offensive? I’ve gotten the impression that “excuse me” might sometimes be construed as a little bit sarcastic, condescending, or insincere.

    • Toni_Hargis

      As a Brit here, I’ve never found that offensive, probably because it’s not used in an angry “How-very-dare-you” way. There’s a certain British way of saying “Excuse me” that can be intentionally aggressive or offensive, yes, but I don’t usually find Americans use it like that.
      I grew up saying “Excuse me please” when trying to get past someone; I would never say “Sorry” in that situation although my (American) husband laughs at people barging through UK train stations, saying “Sorry” as they floor everyone in an effort to catch their trains.
      Be interested in someone else’s opinion.

      • http://www.facebook.com/leeanndunton Lee-ann Dunton

        I agree with you on this Toni. “Excuse me” in those cases isn’t said in a condescending or sarcastic tone… THAT’S when it’s offensive, in any situation.

    • QuitePeckish Limey

      @montanared:disqus depends on the context. If it’s an “excuse me” as in please move aside, then yeah, it could be a bit rude as that requires a please – “Excuse me please”. That said, lived here long enough to know that the use of “excuse me” for that purpose is the more polite American approach :)

      Excuse me as a form of question, well, that’s rude – our response is always “You’re excused”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leeanndunton Lee-ann Dunton

    So true! I find myself doing this all the time.

  • Bunny

    I hate when someone’s like “My dog died.” I’m like “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then they’re all “Why? You didn’t kill my dog. Did you?” >.> It’s like sheesh, what am I supposed to say? “Oh, your dog died? That’s cool.” xD

  • Guest

    I am with you on this. But when someone says, “It wasn’t YOUR fault” I say, “No, but I have empathy for your situation” and they are all “Oh, I see.” It’s a strange thing that I’ve noticed happening a lot in Seattle, but never in the mid-west where I was raised. I figured the people here are insensitive bastards that aren’t empathetic. After this article, I realize they’re just too literal or trying to be British. But what does one say when one feels empathy for another? Now I say, “I’m sorry that you are having to go through this.” Because “Tough luck” sounds sarcastic.

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  • georgina Phelps

    I was about to argue with you but then I reread my comment and realised it started with “I’m sorry, but”. So maybe I’ve lost that one.

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