By Poorna Shetty
Sorry seems to be the hardest word…or so Elton John sang. However, society - at least in Britain - seems to suggest otherwise: we are a nation of sorry-a-holics.
One only needs to type “sorry” into the Google search tab and - presto - 748 million results are returned. Perhaps, a little hint that something is amiss with little old “sorry”. Don’t get us wrong, apologising will never cease to be an important social construct, but on an average day in Britain, we seem to be addicted to the word, using it in entirely improper contexts.
Even the website Omniglot.com, which teaches you how to say sorry in different languages, acknowledges our sorry-a-holic nation, saying: “In the UK for example, people say sorry a lot, even when someone else is at fault.”
Rather than denoting an apology, the word “sorry” has become a by-word for deference and a replacement for the phrase “excuse me”. It’s hardly surprising that we Brits are the worst offenders - along with sarcasm and queuing - avoiding conflict is practically a national sport.
Frank Furedi, author and Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, says that “sorry” has now evolved so that we use it as a way of gaining people’s sympathy.
He adds: “When we say sorry, it’s because we’re a bit confused or disorientated and it’s a way of trying to placate other people. Especially in a British context and for the middle class, it’s a way of protecting oneself from negative feedback.”
Mal Fletcher, British social commentator, says that saying sorry is a sign of good character but in Britain, we tend to overdo it. (He has a point: as a test for this piece, I made a mental log of how many times I said “sorry”. I blurted it out about ten times on the phone, twice on the bus and lost count while in the supermarket.)
“Overusing the word “sorry” devalues it,” says Mal Fletcher. “It ceases to carry the same weight when we really do need to use it - in more personal settings, for example.”
Perhaps if we reclaim the word for what it originally means, people might feel better when it is used properly. According to a report on Science Daily, businesses found that when staff apologised to unhappy customers, they got better feedback than if they tried to placate them with money. Now if only that worked for the first site that pops up on Google: the Sorryeverybody webpage that features photos of hundreds of Americans apologising for President Bush.
* piece originally posted on May 14, 2010