Simon Horobin: Why do we say 'sorry' so much?

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

Just Not Sorry is a new app that aims to draw attention to the use of apologetic language and the excessive use of sorry. People, and especially women it has been claimed, need help to be more forthright and assertive in their emails. This raises the question: why do we say sorry? And is it necessarily a sign of weakness?

The word sorry goes right back to the earliest stages of the English language, as spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. Tracing its history from Old English to the present day reveals an interesting development, in which there is a marked change from the expression of genuine heartfelt sorrow and remorse to regret for minor inconvenience. The key shift occurs in the 19th century and is accompanied by the change from "I am sorry" to plain "sorry", thereby creating a distancing effect, taking us a further step away from the apology as a statement of personal distress to a more formulaic use.

In his history of English Manners Henry Hitchings links this to the 19th-century association of politeness with detachment and aloofness, and the emergence of the concept of the "stiff upper lip".

We still use sorry to express sincere distress or compassion - "I was sorry to hear of your loss". But its meaning has now sufficiently weakened that to convey heartfelt regret requires intensifying adverbs: "I'm truly sorry", "I'm extremely sorry". The most recent quotation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary encapsulates the problem over the use of sorry today: "'Well, I'm sorry,' she said, though she didn't look sorry, or sound sorry." You can say sorry, but you don't necessarily mean it.

Apologising: a social lubricant

Despite its formulaic function, saying sorry is a valuable social lubricant in English-speaking societies. Imagine a scenario in which people are queuing to buy tickets at a train station. A person approaches the head of the queue and asks if he can jump in since he is otherwise in danger of missing his train. The most direct approach would be to simply express this desire as a command: "Let me go in front of you". But this sounds unacceptably direct to most English speakers' ears; more usually a speaker resorts to what linguists term "politeness strategies".

A positive politeness strategy couches a request by appealing to mutual respect, even friendship: "Hey, matey, how about letting me into the queue before you since I'm in a hurry". Negative politeness strategies, primarily concerned with avoiding confrontation or imposition, operate by framing such requests as questions, and hedging them with mitigating devices such as perhaps, possibly, please and sorry.

Speakers draw on conditional verbs - could/would - and even frame the request in the past tense to add metaphorical distance: "I was wondering, could I possibly go in front of you?" Typically, a negative politeness strategy appeals to the person's higher status, or greater claim: "I'm sorry to bother you. I know you've been standing here longer than me, but would you mind letting me into the queue in front of you?"

As well its crucial role in softening these confrontational interactions, sorry may be used where the speaker has nothing to apologise for. Perhaps most striking is the way that English speakers say sorry when a stranger bumps into them on a busy pavement. In an experiment in which she accidentally-on-purpose knocked into strangers in shopping centres, anthropologist Kate Fox found that around 80 per cent of her victims responded by saying sorry, even though they were in no way at fault.

A funny old word

These findings show how sorry has come to be divorced from any sense of an admission of guilt, and can function purely as a means of defusing an awkward situation. This same use can be seen in the tendency to say sorry when complaining about poor service - "Sorry, but I ordered the fish" - and asserting one's rights - "Sorry, but there's someone sitting there".

Fox also observes that cross-cultural and cross-linguistic experiments have shown that such uses of sorry are peculiarly English - rather than typical of all English speakers; the only nation with a similar culture of apologising is Japan. It is perhaps no surprise that statistics show that most English people say sorry at least eight times per day, and sometimes as many as 20 times.

The problem with an app designed to discourage the use of apologetic language is the assumption that saying sorry is always an act of contrition - one that undermines one's case, or assumes an inferior position. Since saying sorry can be a valuable means of refusing a request: "Sorry, but I'm just too busy right now"; or enlisting someone's support - "I'm sorry to bother you when I know you're busy." Removing this useful word runs the risk of making you appear plain rude. There are many business contexts in which an email to a customer or a boss requires apologetic language; to avoid such politeness strategies when explaining why a report is late, or asking for a pay rise, would be a risky policy indeed.

Are women more sorry?

To believe that the Just Not Sorry app is particularly suitable for women in the workplace is to buy into another debatable assumption: that women are more prone to apologising than men. Such claims are part of long-held myths about language and gender that assert that women speak more than men, are more co-operative and better at building rapport. Such claims are based on gender stereotypes rather than scientific evidence; research has shown that there are many similarities between the way men and women apologise, as the linguist Louise Mullany noted in this discussion on the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman's Hour.

Even if it could be shown that women apologise more than men, this would not be grounds for encouraging them to alter their speech habits. As linguist Deborah Cameron has argued, efforts to police women's language are no different to attempts to make women feel self-conscious about their body image.

To advocate that women imitate male speech in order to gain equality in the workplace is to ignore the real problems about gender inequality which have nothing to do with the way women dress or speak. And in any event, apologising - as a man, or a woman - is something intrinsic to our very culture today. I'm sorry, but I just don't think that an app will help.

The Conversation

Simon Horobin is a professor of English language and literature at the University of Oxford. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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