You probably said it a few times on your way into work this morning. It might have made its way into some emails you sent first thing. I know it slipped out of my mouth when a man stood on my foot in Costa this morning. Sorry might be the most overused word in the English language. If I’m not apologising for sneezing, or taking up space, I'm fretting about saying sorry unnecessarily. One survey has found that Brits say sorry far more than Americans and regret saying it too. The British propensity to apologise at every opportunity is well documented. But why do we do it? My natural reaction to someone walking into me is to turn around and apologise profusely, and then get angry with myself for doing so. But is this just a problem Brits have or do Americans have the same issue?
YouGov conducted a survey which compared the UK and U.S to establish whether there is something uniquely British about saying sorry unnecessarily and the results have got me feeling all apologetic. The study found that in many situations Brits and Americans would apologise for the same things. For every 100 Americans surveyed who would apologise for being five minutes late to a meeting 115 Brits said they would. Meanwhile 80 percent of Brits said they would say sorry for standing in someone’s way in a doorway, compared to 72 percent of Americans, and both nationalities shared the view that you should apologise for interrupting someone, with 73 percent of Brits saying they would compared to 71 percent of Americans.
However, differences started becoming starker when participants were asked about more menial, everyday things like sneezing, someone bumping into you, and correcting someone when they are wrong. For every 100 Americans who would apologise when someone bumps into them, a massive 150 Brits would. At least I'm not the only one. Also, 143 Brits said they would apologise when someone else interrupted them, compared to 100 Americans, plus 32 percent of Brits said they would say sorry when they sneezed compared to 22 percent of Americans.
Speaking to BBC Futures social anthropologist and author Kate Fox said, “our excessive, often inappropriate and sometimes downright misleading use of this word devalues it, and it makes things very confusing and difficult for foreigners unaccustomed to our ways.”
However she added there are worse words in the English language to throw around, “I don’t think saying sorry all the time is such a bad thing. It even makes sense in the context of a negative-politeness culture. Of all the words that a nation could choose to scatter about with such random profligacy, surely sorry is not the worst.”
The YouGov study also found that while Brits as a whole are more likely to apologise for everyday occurrences British women are also more likely to apologise than British men for certain things. Thirty percent of men said they would apologise when they sneezed compared to 34 percent of women. Seventy-nine percent of women said they would apologise for interrupting someone compared to 67 percent of men. If they made a joke that upset someone, 49 percent of men surveyed said they would say sorry compared to 65 percent of women. When their U.S counterparts were asked a similar pattern emerged. But why is this? Are women simply more polite?
Researcher Karina Schumann suggests it may have something to do with when men and women deem they are in the wrong. She said on Live Science, "men aren't actively resisting apologising because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don't want to take responsibility for their actions…It seems to be that when they think they've done something wrong they do apologise just as frequently as when women think they've done something wrong. It's just that they think they've done fewer things wrong.”
It can sometimes feel like you apologise for merely taking up space or making noise. When I think about it logically, apologising when someone walks into you is ridiculous. And it would appear I am not the only one who is irritated about how loosely I throw around the word sorry. Thirty-one percent of Brits surveyed said they think they say sorry too much, and when women were asked 49 percent said they think men apologised too little, and 44 percent said they think women apologise too much. Wherever you stand when it comes to over-apologising I think I'm going to be attempting to keep my mouth firmly shut when someone walks into me in the coffee queue in 2019.