Outside of an actual apology, the Canadian ‘sorry’ is a totem of niceness, with a sly undertone of superiority. It also subtly asserts that we are not American Hasbro
Karina Schumann, a psychologist, recently moved to California for graduate studies at Stanford as an expert in, among other things, the use and abuse of “sorry.”
At the University of Waterloo, she had discovered men have a higher moral threshold for offensive behaviour than women, and so they apologize less frequently, and rarely for the little things.
Far from her stereotypically polite native land, in a stereotypically self-absorbed country, she saw this “threshold mechanism” at play once again, only not on the spectrum of gender, but of national culture.
Once you learn how to properly say ‘I’m sorry,’ you will no longer be trying to become Canadian, you will have rewired your brain to such a degree that you will actually be Canadian
Saying “sorry,” she realized, is not always an apology. It is also a “politeness strategy — a way to have smooth, norm-abiding, harmonious interactions.”
This is the casually well-mannered reflexive northern “sorry” — not apologetic, not quite obsequious, but definitely submissive — and it is as dear to Canadians as beer, snow and hockey.
Psychologist Karina Schumann recently moved to California for graduate studies at Stanford as an expert in, among other things, the use and abuse of “sorry.” Courtesy of Karina Schumann
“It might be more reflexive for Canadians to apologize,” Ms. Schumann said. “But my sense is that this stems from a culture of being polite rather than from being passive-aggressive, and this politeness is generally a positive thing. As a Canadian living in California, I can say that the people here think very highly of Canadians, and seem to admire how polite we are.”
As Canada celebrates itself on Tuesday, it will do so with fireworks and barbeques, but also with a vision of itself as polite to the point of parody, more modest than meek, but constantly saying sorry for every petty perceived offence.
Though the scientific record is a bit flimsy and whimsical, this Canadian self-image does have a bit of proper psychology on its side. A Harvard study last year of the “superfluous apologizer,” for example, showed they are seen as more trustworthy. It found people were more likely to hand a stranger their phone if the request, “Can I use your phone?” was preceded by a superfluous apology, “I’m sorry about the rain.”
In a 2010 study of when Canadians say “sorry,” young people aged 18 to 25 were “more interested in impressing others and in advancing through making personal connections in their career and everyday life and therefore are more open to saying ‘sorry’ to keep the relationship positive.”
A cross-border psychological study of whether people apologize to police after being stopped for speeding, however, showed Americans were just as likely as Canadians to do so. (On average, it led to lower fines.)
The alternatives to “sorry” can be awkward to the Canadian ear. “Excuse me,” one Canadian study found, “was commonly used sarcastically.” “Pardon me,” likewise, as the venerable 1960 Harlequin Canadian Etiquette Dictionary once informed the nation, “is not correctly used under any circumstances; it is considered an affectation.”
The Canadian “sorry,” on the other hand, wears its honesty on its sleeve, despite having as many linguistic uses as that other conversational workhorse, “f–k.” (Sorry.)
As Ian and Will Ferguson theorized in How To Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One), there are in fact twelve Canadian sorries: simple, essential, occupational, subservient, aristocratic, demonstrative, libidinous, ostentatious, mythical, unrepentant, sympathetic and authentic.
“Once you learn how to properly say ‘I’m sorry,’ you will no longer be trying to become Canadian, you will have rewired your brain to such a degree that you will actually be Canadian,” they wrote.
Cultural anecdotes abound, often on the theme of a typical Canadian saying “sorry” to someone who has offended him. For his book on the politics of bilingualism, journalist Graham Fraser chose the title Sorry, I Don’t Speak French, a common expression he describes as “part apology, part defiance, it is a declaration of otherness.”
Top flight Canadian Olympians who have begged forgiveness include Mellisa Hollingsworth, Paula Findlay, and Adam van Koeverden.
In their album Forgive Us We’re Canadian, the comedy duo Local Anxiety sing: “We always say we’re sorry / We like to stand in line / When you ask us how we’re doing / We always say — just fine.”
The comedian Colin Mochrie, in a satirical apology to Americans in 2003, concluded by saying “I’m sorry that we’re constantly apologizing for things in a passive-aggressive way which is really a thinly veiled criticism.”
What these examples share is a sense of “sorry” that is like wearing a maple leaf on your bag. Outside of an actual apology, the Canadian “sorry” is a totem of niceness, with a sly undertone of superiority. It announces both our presence and the fact we feel slightly bad about it. It also subtly asserts that, cultural appearances notwithstanding, we are not American.
As such, this eager and mostly earnest knee-jerk pseudo-penitence stands as a point of national pride, between the forced formality of the morally empty English “sorry!” and the so-called “John Wayne Code” of America, in which apologizing is avoided as a sign of weakness.
Like many of the deepest Canadian cultural impulses, we inherit it largely from England, and it sets us pleasingly apart from America.
“It’s clear from even a quick inspection that there are national differences in the use of “sorry” and other words, but exactly what’s going on is harder to tell,” said Edwin Battistella, a linguist at Southern Oregon University whose new book, Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, describes the linguistic, philosophical and anthropological differences between saying “I’m sorry” and truly apologizing.
The phrase “I’m sorry” “reports on an internal state of the speaker but does not literally perform an apology,” he wrote. It is a “minimal report.”
“Sorry is a particularly tricky word,” Mr. Battistella said in an interview. It can connote regret that something happened, without actual remorse. It can telegraph empathy. He compared the Canadian usage to the rigidly formal Japanese notion of Sunao, or “selfless surrender.”
“What it means is that Japanese apologizers often defer to the other person’s perception of the situation, and put themselves at the mercy of the victim,” he said. “It’s harmonizing to the other person’s perception.”
As a cultural case study in contrast to Canada, the British are especially revealing. A 2011 study found the average Briton said sorry eight times a day, but rather than a similarity with Canada, this is actually a point of distinction, triangulating Canada against its cultural poles of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Roughly, the Americans do not say it, the British do not mean it, and the Canadians overdo it.
The British sorry is “a prophylactic word,” wrote A.A. Gill in The Angry Island: Hunting The English. “It protects the user and the recipient from the potentially explosive consequences of the truth.”
The readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologize for what they have done
“The readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologize for what they have done,” wrote Henry Hitchings in Sorry!: The English and their Manners.
In common British parlance, “sorry” does not even try to convey penitence, sorrow, or regret, but rather a detached politesse, a studied humility, and a willingness to pretend to accept fault rather than debase one’s self with overt conflict.
Said on its own, sorry “may seem hollow — a punctuation mark, with a weight no greater than a comma in the everyday discourse of selfishness,” Mr. Hitchings wrote. Sorry, on this view, is an abbreviation of “I am sorry,” in which, “the verb disappears, and all that’s left is an adjective conveniently cut off from the person feeling sorrowful.”
This reflects a small but revealing linguistic error, which Canadians especially illustrate. Sorry and sorrow do not come from the same word.
According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, “sorrow” is from the Old English “sorh” or “sorg,” which meant the same, while “sorry” comes via West Germanic from the Old English sarig meaning “pained” or “distressed.”
Feeling sorry, literally, is feeling pain, and Canadians seem to like it. Not all agree, however.
“How do we know Canadians actually do apologize more?” said Mike Ross, a retired University of Waterloo psychology professor, and co-author with Ms. Schumann on the paper about gender differences. “I don’t think there’s any evidence for it. I know this is part of the stereotype. It’s a stereotype we have of ourselves, and it’s a stereotype that others have of us, but is it true? I don’t know.”
We use sorry in a lot of different ways, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with apology
“It’s sort of a politeness thing,” he said. “We say sorry in lots of contexts, including, ‘I’m sorry your brother died.’ I didn’t have anything to do with that, I’m sorry because you feel badly about that. We use sorry in a lot of different ways, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with apology.”
The national eagerness to apologize, on this view, might be imagined. It is on this point that Ms. Schumann’s gender research offers crucial insight into a large group of people who imagine themselves overdoing the sorries.
In it, she found only women endorsed the stereotype that women are more willing to apologize than men. In her study, conducted with diaries, men did in fact apologize less than women, but this was due to “different judgments of severity rather than by a difference in willingness to apologize.”
“My sense is that these cultural differences are smaller than we tend to believe,” said Ms. Schumann, who recently polled American subjects on 40 “hypothetical offence scenarios” and found “the strength of their ratings suggest that they were generally quite willing to apologize… It might be that Americans do not apologize as frequently as Canadians, but they do still apologize,” she said.
On this view, Canadians are not as they claim to see themselves, sorrying their way through the world. A new shampoo ad plays on this stereotype from the gender angle, urging women to stop apologizing for themselves, or the minor offenses of other people.
“Why are women always apologizing?” it asks, frankly inviting both the comparison with Canadians and the response: “Because they are trying to be polite.”
As one of the few critical responses noted, this ad is premised on the view that apologizing is “inherently pathetic,” leading to the bizarre conclusion that women ought to be apologizing for saying sorry, “a weird whirligig of contrition that spins along indefinitely.”
Which, of course, sounds a lot like a revolving door in Canada.
National Post – Joseph Brean – Friday, Jun. 27, 2014