British people are famous for apologising in almost every situation. Whether we are apologising for asking a question, for our bad weather or because we sneezed, we are probably the number-one nation for apologies.
We Brits pride ourselves on our polite manners towards one another in public. As a result, we often use the word ‘sorry’ quite a lot – even when we don’t really mean it! Usually, if you want to ask a stranger for the time, you would start by saying ‘Sorry to bother you. Do you know what time it is?’ If you’re five minutes late for an appointment, you would generally greet the person by saying ‘Sorry I’m late!’ and if you’re 15 minutes late, you might want to be even more apologetic and say, ‘I’m so sorry I’m late!’
We use the word ‘sorry’ in so many different situations that the meaning of the word has slightly changed over time. The two main dictionary definitions of ‘sorry’ are: 1) feeling sad for someone else because of their problems or misfortunes 2) feeling regret because you’ve done something wrong. Now, think about this. Normally, when you want to ask a stranger a question, you start with ‘sorry to disturb you’. In this situation, we aren’t saying sorry because we feel sad for that person or because we feel regret.
So what does 'sorry' really mean? And why do Brits use it so much? Well, in the British culture, saying ‘sorry’, or apologising in general, is a way to be polite, especially to people who you don’t know very well. It’s also a very clever way to get what you want. In a recent experiment, an actor approached different strangers on a rainy day to ask if he could use their mobile phone in order to make a call. When he approached one group of strangers and asked them without apologising first, he was only 9 per cent successful in borrowing their phone. However, when he apologised to another group of strangers about the bad weather before asking if he could use their mobile phones, he was 47 per cent successful. So maybe saying 'sorry' is not just being polite, but it is also a good method to get what you want too!
Is there a special way to apologise in your culture? When do you say 'sorry'? What should you do to be polite in your culture?