Is “sorry” the wrong number?

Anna North–I like this woman’s writing!–has a piece up summarizing reactions to the Pantene “Sorry” commercial:

In part, she points out, the women in the commercial aren’t actually apologizing:

The linguist Deborah Tannen tells her the word often isn’t an admission of guilt; it’s merely a way of “taking into account the presence of another person.” The woman in the Pantene ad who apologizes when a man bumps her elbow doesn’t really think she’s done a bad thing — she’s just politely acknowledging the man’s existence. But men don’t tend to reciprocate with their own sorrying. Ms. Tannen says:

“I see this as the more general phenomenon that language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it’s used the way others use it — as a ritual. But those who don’t share the ritual tend to take the words literally. Since American men don’t tend to use ‘sorry’ this way, they mistakenly take women’s use of it literally, as an apology.”

Just because the men are getting it “wrong” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop doing it anyway, of course. North defends the casual “sorry” as an expression of empathy–“At its best, ‘sorry’ may be an expression of caring for someone else — whether it’s a real admission of wrongdoing or just a simple acknowledgment that sometimes two people have to occupy the same cramped waiting room.”

I’m not buying it, though. I think the auto-sorry blurs the line between empathy and culpability in a bad way. We all know what a crappy apology sounds like–“I’m sorry you were offended,” that kind of thing, in which the miscreant uses the proper apology words but never invests in them. The auto-sorry devalues the language of apology in a similar way, albeit with a kinder intent. You can’t possibly be sorry for your physical existence in a shared space with another human being, as in regretful of your choices and determined not to let that happen again, so don’t say you are.

The English language has a phrase for those situations in which you want to acknowledge another person’s possible inconvenience without assuming blame for it: “Excuse me.”

Save the “sorrys” for actual apologies.

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