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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2 Responses to Is “sorry” the wrong number?

  1. iliadawry says:

    I generally agree with you, but I have to say — yes, you CAN possibly be sorry for your physical existence in your shared space with another human being. As in: regretful of your “choices” and determined not to bother them with your need to take up space, to be warm or comfortable in a way that may possibly be at their expense. It may be pathology that makes someone feel that way — the lies depression tells one — but I promise it’s possible (and agonizing).

    I agree with your overall message: we shouldn’t use “sorry” to say “Oh hello you exist!” because it can be harmful, but part of why it can be so harmful is that it IS possible to find people who are literally apologizing for existing in your vicinity.

  2. J N says:

    I’d be interested in hearing how you felt if you lived in England for a while. In England men and women do this kind of sorrying a great deal and it’s considered just normal politeness. It’s an acknowledgement of another person, that something faintly awkward has happened or might have happened but didn’t. I didn’t do it when I lived in the US (I’m female) but picked it up when I came to live in England.

    Note that I’m not saying that English people are more polite than Americans, or that they are more open to the humanity of strangers. This is one convention for acknowledging humanity, but there are many other situations where Americans would acknowledge one another but English people pretend the other person doesn’t exist. And of course both countries have large behaviour differences between cities and small villages/towns.

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