You’re stood in a queue and someone pushes in front of you, what do you do? Maybe you’re at a gig and someone stands on your foot. It seems completely nonsensical but, whether the fault is yours or someone else, sorry can often slip out. It’s one of the most overused words and whether you mean it or not it’s become accepted as a very British reaction to almost any incident or inconvenience. So why do Brits say sorry so much? Apologising is such a natural reaction now that I don’t even realise I’m doing it. In fact, a new study has revealed that the average Brit says “sorry” 4380 times every year.
It’s hard to catch yourself apologising when it really isn’t necessary. A nationwide study commissioned by the chocolate biscuit bar, PiCKUP!, found that 88% of Brits admit to regularly saying sorry for things that aren’t their fault. The average UK resident apologises a massive eight times a day. While that seems completely ridiculous, the hustle and bustle of a morning commute alone can lead me to apologise at least four times.
It’s become widely accepted that apologising a lot and unnecessarily is just something that’s inherently British. I find it’s often easier to apologise for something, like someone bumping into you, that totally isn’t your fault, than when you’re seriously in the wrong. What's that about?
In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox talks about an experiment where someone walks down the street and deliberately bumps into people. She found that 80 percent of people said sorry despite the fact she was definitely in the wrong. “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,” said Fox to the BBC. She continued:
"I don’t think saying sorry all the time is such a bad thing. Of all the words that a nation could choose to scatter about with such random profligacy, surely 'sorry' is not the worst."
It wasn’t just bumping into each other that the study commissioned by PiCKUP! found Brits are willing to apologise for. While 57 percent said they would apologise if someone walked into them, a third say it when they ask a colleague to do something at work, and a quarter say it when someone stands on their foot. This apologising epidemic is so real that seven percent of respondents said they’ve said sorry after someone has bumped or crashed into their car.
It seems there’s no limit on what Brits will say sorry for. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Edwin Battistella, a linguistics expert from Southern Oregon University and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, explained to the BBC that as Brits tend to value people not taking up others space and not drawing attention to themselves sorry can be a way of expressing “negative politeness.” She said, “the British will say ‘sorry’ to someone they don’t know because they’d like to ask for some information, or to sit down next to them–and because not saying ‘sorry’ would constitute an even greater invasion of that stranger’s privacy.”
If you’re a perpetual apologiser there might be no need to fret. The study commissioned by PiCKUP! revealed that Brits are quick to judge people who don’t say sorry and put trust those who apologise. Next time you’re on a packed train and someone hits you with their bag, watch out for your reaction. However, saying sorry isn’t always the worst thing.