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Thread poster: Linda Kelly
How to say sorry

Linda Kelly  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:52
Spanish to English
+ ...
Apr 24, 2010

If you can get access to BBC iPlayer, this is an interesting listen. It's a programme called 'I'm sorry I killed your fish', broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Friday 23 April. What follows is the BBC description of the programme:

Linguist Eva Ogiermann considers how different cultures apologise and what this means.

Shostakovich's Fifth symphony was published with the tag "A Soviet artist's reply to justified criticism," and was widely seen as an apology to Stalin authorities for his opera Lady Macbeth. Russian apologies are very different from English ones.

Overwhelmingly the most common way for a Russian to apologise is to say "forgive me": a formulation that demands forgiveness from the listener.

English apologies, by contrast, almost always use the word "sorry": a word full of ambiguity since it expresses regret but not necessarily culpability.

The ambiguity has frequently been exploited by Anglo-Saxon politicians who have apparently apologised for historic wrongs which they were not responsible for. Poles use the formula: "I apologise" - what linguists call a "a performative" - which is situated somewhere between the English and Russian formula.

Eva Ogiermann from Portsmouth University is a Polish linguist, fluent in all three languages; she has carried out extensive research in how people apologise in the three languages.

In one scenario she asked people how they would apologise for letting a neighbour's pet fish die while supposedly looking after them. A typical British apology is "Some of your fish died while you were away. I fed them an everything but turned up one day and some had died" (admitting facts but denying responsibility) or when accepting blame only using careful formulation such as "I think I might not have fed them properly". Russians and Poles would tend to the more florid, such as "I neglected your fish. I know now that there is nothing to be done", or "I have not lived up to your trust".

Using many other scenarios, not just fish, Eva Ogiermann constructs a complete typology of apology, and argues that the differences are more than linguistic - they reflect different notions of politeness in the respective cultures. The British emphasise "negative politeness" - not encroaching on someone else's space. Russians are far more interested in "positive politeness" - making the hearer feel good about themselves.


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
English to Arabic
+ ...
Very interesting Apr 26, 2010

It's also interesting to note that the English say "sorry" far more than any other nationality I've ever come across (taking into account all expressions denoting regret /asking forgiveness/ apologising).

This may make the English seem like a very apologetic people. But it may be precisely because the English "sorry" is not necessarily an outright admission of guilt but just a regret that something happened.

This would explain something I read a while ago in a book called "The English" (can't remember the author), which said that the English are the only people in the world who would apologise (=say "sorry"!) if you bumped into them in a crowded street. And based on personal observation this is absolutely true. But the explanation provided in that programme may explain that the English aren't actually as guilt-ridden as they may appear to foreigners.

[Edited at 2010-04-26 09:55 GMT]


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:52
Italian to English
+ ...
Watching the English? Apr 26, 2010


Nesrin wrote:

This would explain something I read a while ago in a book called "The English" (can't remember the author), which said that the English are the only people in the world who would apologise (=say "sorry"!) if you bumped into them in a crowded street. And based on personal observation this is absolutely true. But the explanation provided in that programme may explain that the English aren't actually as guilt-ridden as they may appear to foreigners.


I think that was probably Watching the English by Kate Fox - an enjoyable book I'd whole-heartedly recommend for anyone wanting to understand what makes the English tick.


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
English to Arabic
+ ...
That's the one! Apr 26, 2010


Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:


Nesrin wrote:

This would explain something I read a while ago in a book called "The English" (can't remember the author), which said that the English are the only people in the world who would apologise (=say "sorry"!) if you bumped into them in a crowded street. And based on personal observation this is absolutely true. But the explanation provided in that programme may explain that the English aren't actually as guilt-ridden as they may appear to foreigners.


I think that was probably Watching the English by Kate Fox - an enjoyable book I'd whole-heartedly recommend for anyone wanting to understand what makes the English tick.


Thanks, Marie-Hélène - yes, that's the one. I found it really interesting and funny too..


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:52
English to Croatian
+ ...
All three forms. Apr 26, 2010

There are all three forms in Serbo-Croat, implying different nuances and degrees of apologies:

I apologize : Ispričavam se/ izvinjavam se ( would be a rather formal way)

Sorry: Žao mi je ( expressing deep regret)

Forgive me: Oprosti mi ( expressing regret on a personal level, this is personal and emotionally colored). This is most common in personal contexts.

We also use the French word "pardon" in some situations, and it's only used by specific population.

Although " Sorry" is commonly translated as "izvinjavam se", because that's what it implies in English.

Have these studies taken into consideration any individual/ personality characteristics of participants or just general national and language customs and beliefs? I personally find this study to be too generic.

[Edited at 2010-04-26 12:08 GMT]


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
English to Arabic
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Usage of sorry Apr 26, 2010


Lingua 5B wrote:

Have these studies taken into consideration any individual/ personality characteristics of participants or just general national and language customs and beliefs? I personally find this study to be too generic.


Also, there's a subtle difference in the usage of "I am sorry" which the study/programme description doesn't go into. The meaning changes considerably depending on whether you say:
I am sorry something happened (I'm sorry your fish died/ the city was bombed) => expresses neutral regret
and
I am sorry I did something (I'm sorry I didn't feed your fish/we threw a bomb over your city) => expresses acknowledgment of responsibility.


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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 10:52
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Different in Brazil Apr 26, 2010

In my experience, people here rarely say "I'm sorry" at all! It took me a while to get used to it...they also rarely say "thank you."

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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:52
English to Croatian
+ ...
The " I" references Apr 26, 2010


Nesrin wrote:

Also, there's a subtle difference in the usage of "I am sorry" which the study/programme description doesn't go into. The meaning changes considerably depending on whether you say:
I am sorry something happened (I'm sorry your fish died/ the city was bombed) => expresses neutral regret
and
I am sorry I did something (I'm sorry I didn't feed your fish/we threw a bomb over your city) => expresses acknowledgment of responsibility.


This is because of the "I" subject; The " I sentences" have been largely researched in psychology and neuro-linguistics. They are always more personal and emotional in interpersonal communication.

And sorry + for is also more formal: e.g. Sorry for the inconvenience.



[Edited at 2010-04-26 14:04 GMT]


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Paul Dixon  Identity Verified
Brazil
Local time: 10:52
Member (2009)
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Different levels of politeness Apr 26, 2010

This discussion reminds me of a joke going round in Brazil in English Language teaching circles.

An Englishman, an American and a Brazilian were at a restaurant and they all wanted the bill (check, if you're the other side of the Pond).

The Englishman says: "Oh, sir, I'm ever so sorry to bother you and please accept my most humble apologies for taking up some of your precious time, but I wondered if you would be so kind as to kindly bring yourself to come over here and bring us the bill, please? I do apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused."

The American says: "Could we have the bill, please?"

The Brazilian says: "Psssittt!"

(Psssittt is a common expression used by many Brazilians, usually at the same time as clicking thumbs. It's a bit like "Hey!" Of course not all Brazilians are like this, but I have witnessed this myself on several occasions. Another colourful expression they use is "A dolorosa, por favor" which means "the painful one, please".)


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Tina Colquhoun  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
Danish to English
+ ...
Different level indeed Apr 26, 2010

I don't think we're so polite that we would call the waiter 'sir', though...

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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:52
English to Croatian
+ ...
LOL! Apr 26, 2010


Paul Dixon wrote:

The Englishman says: "Oh, sir, I'm ever so sorry to bother you and please accept my most humble apologies for taking up some of your precious time, but I wondered if you would be so kind as to kindly bring yourself to come over here and bring us the bill, please? I do apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused."



Ha ha........... It's good that he said " for taking up some of your precious time" because it takes a lot of time just to process this long sentence.

[Edited at 2010-04-26 16:01 GMT]


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
English to Arabic
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Quoting Kate Fox "Watching the English" Apr 26, 2010


Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:


Nesrin wrote:

This would explain something I read a while ago in a book called "The English" (can't remember the author), which said that the English are the only people in the world who would apologise (=say "sorry"!) if you bumped into them in a crowded street. And based on personal observation this is absolutely true. But the explanation provided in that programme may explain that the English aren't actually as guilt-ridden as they may appear to foreigners.


I think that was probably Watching the English by Kate Fox - an enjoyable book I'd whole-heartedly recommend for anyone wanting to understand what makes the English tick.


I got "Watching the English" off my shelf just now and re-read the passages on her experiment "accidentally-on purpose" bumping into people from different nationalities, and observing that only the English (and occasionally the Japanese), say "sorry" when being bumped into.
Her conclusion, interestingly, agree with the findings of the above study:

"You may be wondering why the English seem to assume that any accidental collision is our fault, and immediately accept the blame for it by apologizing. If so, you are making a mistake. The reflex apology is just that: a reflex - an automatic, knee-jerk response, not a considered admission of guilt. This is a deeply ingrained rule: when any inadvertent, undesired contact occurs (and to the English, almost any contact is by definition undesired), we say 'sorry."


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xxxDesdemone
Local time: 10:52
French to English
Much like "hi, how are you?" Apr 26, 2010

[quote]Nesrin wrote:

[quote]Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:


Nesrin wrote:


"You may be wondering why the English seem to assume that any accidental collision is our fault, and immediately accept the blame for it by apologizing. If so, you are making a mistake. The reflex apology is just that: a reflex - an automatic, knee-jerk response, not a considered admission of guilt. This is a deeply ingrained rule: when any inadvertent, undesired contact occurs (and to the English, almost any contact is by definition undesired), we say 'sorry."


Another reflex when greeting someone, in person or on the phone/email, at least in Canada: Not only do we NOT want to know how you are, we REALLY don't want to know if you're having anything but a good day Correct response is: "Fine, how are you?"


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Linda Kelly  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 14:52
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I agree that sorry can be a knee-jerk reaction... Apr 26, 2010

... but on the whole we are a nation overly concerned with what other people think of us, something which even baffles natives of other anglophile countries.

Paul's comments remind me of a cartoon book one of my Spanish students showed me about the English. The cover has two pictures - both of two men drowning in the River Thames. One man simply shouts "Help!" at which the English passer-by (complete with hat and umbrella) turns his nose up. The second says "Excuse me, sorry to trouble you but would you mind giving me a hand, I seem to be in a spot of bother" which has the same passer-by running to his assistance.

Interestingly, the English reaction to accidental collisions doesn't work quite the same way with cars, when we can display the same road-rage as anyone!


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Nesrin  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:52
English to Arabic
+ ...
It's all those little magic words... Apr 26, 2010

..that the English can't live without, not just "sorry"!
(Sorry to be going off-topic...)

Whenever I have visiting relatives from Egypt, I'm constantly saying all the "pleases", "thank yous" and "sorrys" on their behalf as we're walking in the streets, buying things, ordering food, etc. It gets embarrassing for them as well as me... In Egypt it's just not customary to use them as much.

A typical "conversation" with a shop assistant here in England usually goes something like this:

Me: I'll have this, please. Thank you.
Asst: That'll be £3.99, please. Could you insert your card and enter your pin, please? Thank you very much.
Me: Yes, thank you.
Asst: You can take your card back now. Thank you. Shall I put your receipt in the bag?
Me: Yes, thank you very much.
Asst: There you go, thank you very much.
Me: Thank you very much.

Trying to replicate that in Egypt just makes me look like a desperate loser!!


Linda Kelly wrote:

... but on the whole we are a nation overly concerned with what other people think of us, something which even baffles natives of other anglophile countries.




[Edited at 2010-04-26 21:19 GMT]


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How to say sorry






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