Yesterday evening I bought myself some Hammerite Kurust rust converter (we all need a treat on a Friday). When the sales assistant forgot to give me my €1 change I instinctively said Sorry, could I get my change please?
Why did I say sorry? What did I do to him? It took him a few moments to open the till, but apart from that I didn’t inconvenience him that much. English can be quite polite at times, but it does seem a little bizarre that our first instinct is to apologise in a lot of situations.
If we need someone’s help: sorry.
If we simply want to get someone’s attention: sorry.
If we accidentally bump into someone on the street: sorry.
If someone accidentally bumps into us on the street: sorry.
Of course in most of these situations we’re not consciously apologising, but it’s still telling that we immediately reach for a word of apology. In the ritual of conversation we’re making the first move, and putting ourselves in the submissive position, seeking forgiveness for having done something wrong and expressing our sadness, regardless of whether we actually have done something wrong or not
And sorry doesn’t feel like a weak word that can be thrown around and used carelessly in any conversation. No-one wants to feel sorrow, and if you threaten someone with You’ll be sorry, you’re probably not wishing that they suffer the inconvenience of having to ask someone for €1 change.
Even if you use excuse me, which doesn’t feel as strong as sorry, the original meaning is still the same.
Politeness is important, of course. Little words like please and thank you grease the wheels of conversation and make our daily interactions progress a little more smoothly and pleasantly. There’s a fine line between being appropriately polite and overdoing it though, and the way that we use sorry seems to cross that line sometimes.
But is that something we can, or even should change? We’re all so used to using sorry that if someone were to suddenly stop using it and be more direct, they’d probably seem quite rude. If I’d simply said Can I have my change please, the sales assistant probably wouldn’t have been as willing to help. Saying sorry at the outset, gets the person’s attention and gives them a moment to get themselves together and start listening to you. Perhaps sorry isn’t the best word to use in that situation, but those little introductory words are very helpful to the person we’re talking to, and deserve their place alongside please and thank you in civil conservation.
Anyway, sorry for taking your time, you probably have other things you could be doing…