Tom and I spent a wonderful Thanksgiving with family in the US. It was my first Thanksgiving stateside in 6 years and Tom’s first ever!
So about that nation full of apologists. I’m talking about AMERICANS. YES!! And I’m just as surprised as you are. I’m writing about something we noticed after a few days in the US.
Maybe it’s always been this way, but what I’m going to talk about in this post stood out to me and Tom after being away awhile. It’s the frequency of Americans saying “sorry” for the tiniest things. I’ve never thought of Americans as overly apologetic – that’s a Canadian thing – but now I’m second-guessing that.
Do you say sorry when you have nothing to be sorry about? Is it a reflex? Just a word to say?
Saying sorry… when it becomes too much
Treating others with respect and kindness is of utmost importance and being polite is also high on my list of how not to come across as socially tone deaf.
But what about when it veers to the other side of the spectrum an seems almost TOO polite?
Let me ask you… what do you say in these situations below? Let’s pretend we’re at a shopping mall.
- You lightly hit someone behind you with a door upon entering a store.
- You bump another shopper with your shopping bag as you pass by. They were just standing there and you were the one who bumped into them.
- You step on someone’s foot in line behind you.
- You put change in a cashier’s hand but a few coins fall onto the counter.
- You and another distracted shopper lightly bump into each other as you pass by. Both shoppers did the bumping.
- You arrive at the entrance to a store at the same time as someone else and there’s only room for one of you to go first. So you step in front of the other person to take the lead. OR You open a door and someone is on the other side going the opposite way.
- You’re getting out of your car in the parking lot and the guy parked next to you gets back to his car right as you’re getting out so he has to wait near his trunk for a few seconds while you close your door and exit your car.
- Someone is blocking your way in a busy place, so you say excuse me so they move and let you pass by.
In the situations above, I would absolutely say sorry to someone for 1-5. I’d say sorry in French too if this happened in France. Why? Because I’m the one who is clearly at fault. These are all minor situations, but still, I’d say sorry in those first 5 situations above no matter the country I’m in. It’s the polite thing to do. A sorry feels natural to me and is a word that acknowledges you were in the wrong, no matter how minor.
But what about the other examples? When two people encounter a situation at the same time and it’s a little awkward but no one did anything wrong. What do you say then?
When it’s something that “just happens” and no one is at fault, do you say sorry?
There’s no right or wrong. What do you say?
I think I used to be the type of person who said sorry even if it wasn’t my fault. And trust me, between saying sorry for something or saying nothing at all, I’d take the polite sorry any day. But what about when it’s not your fault?
In situations like #6 above, two people arriving in front of a door at the same time, an “excuse me,” “go ahead,” “after you,” “thank you” if you step through first, or even a polite smile without any words at all would have sufficed. But sorry? What are you apologizing for? This happened no fewer than 5 times over the course of Black Friday shopping and I think my reply to the sorry was, “No problem at all!”
Is sorry a reflex of yours? Is it just a matter of language and sorry seems to be the best word for the situation?
I can’t tell you how many times Tom and I encountered situations in the US where the person has said sorry and they had nothing to be sorry about!
I’m talking about things that are so minor and just normal parts of life. I will note this was all in the NY/NJ/PA area (didn’t notice the overly sorry people in Florida when we were there 6 months ago).
To me, sorry is apologizing to someone for a mistake you made. Or a slightly awkward social situation that you’re a part of where you need to say something. It’s excusing you for something you did wrong.
If you hit someone with your bag by accident. If you cut in front of someone. If you drop something on someone’s foot. If you drop a customer’s order. Sorry works great in all of these instances and I’d absolutely apologize if I was the one in the wrong.
In #8 above, I’d expect the person who is blocking your way to say sorry but so many people doing the asking said sorry to me. I was the one blocking them! I thought it was a fluke but this happened at least 5 times over the course of the holiday weekend in busy stores. I was the one in someone’s way and THEY said sorry for asking me to move. What?? Likewise, I bumped into someone standing in front of a display — I was the clumsy one — and SHE said sorry pretty much in unison with me.
In France, I feel like you’d hear “pardon” or “excusez-moi” if someone was clearly at fault. But in less defined situations, you might not hear anything at all. Definitely not desolée (sorry) when no one is really at fault and definitely NOT as often as we heard it. I read something recently and can’t remember where about how French people do not default to sorry, and in my experience, it’s true.
It’s kind of a social arrogance not admitting fault.
If they’re in the wrong, yes, of course any person with a bit of class of any nationality would say sorry, but two people arriving in front of a door at the same time? Nothing to be sorry about. One person opens it and either walks through or lets the other person through first.
I feel like saying sorry when you’ve done nothing wrong almost weakens your position. It doesn’t change anything if you say it once in a while but constantly saying sorry for something that’s not even your fault? Not my style anymore. Maybe France is rubbing off on me.
Taste of France says
I’ve heard the passive-aggressive version, where the person at fault says nothing and the other person spits out, “Sorry!” in a way that says “Hey, you idiot, you should be the one apologizing!” Sometimes the offender is rude and pushy, but sometimes they are just oblivious that they knocked into somebody or stepped on someone’s foot.
I’ve also heard people just gripe into the air, like at the market: Ces *$^%#@ de poussettes/chiens/caddies/whatever is annoying them!
Hahha yea, love when people mumble a comment instead of just talking to the person directly. I brought my dog inside an indoors market once not realizing dogs weren’t allowed inside and instead of someone kindly pointing out that dogs aren’t allowed, I realized the mumbled comment I heard in passing was someone saying dogs weren’t allowed. Took me hearing it 3 times to realize what was being said. But no one said anything to my face. I hate when people act like that — just be direct!
I actually don’t hear a lot of “sorrys” in my neck of the woods, the Chicago area. People seem to be more distracted and don’t even notice if they bumped into you etc. For myself, I don’t say sorry unless I am at fault.
Right, that’s what I would have expected since the NY metro area isn’t known for being polite, just the opposite. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the people I ran into were overly apologetic or in a sorry kind of mood? Like I mentioned, I didn’t notice this in Florida earlier this year!
I think for so many of us saying sorry is said out of habit not because we have a reason to be sorry so I guess that might be the reason Americans do it too.
Agreed, it’s definitely a habit and something to say!
And I thought it was just us Brits who were overly apologetic. I’m guilty of some of these but will also utter a sarky ‘you’re welcome’ if I hold a door open for someone and they just swan through like the Queen of Sheba without so much as a ‘thank you’.