The Canadian Apology: Sorry, eh?

Sorry to bother you, but I’d like to talk about something today. The Canadian Sorry.

Canadians are subject to stereotypes like all other nations, often suffering them gladly. I have yet to see a backpacker appropriating any other country’s flag, which is an odd, but pleasant compliment.  However, our reputation for extreme politeness has led to a complete global misunderstanding of a unique linguistic habit: the Canadian Sorry.

Image source: Hark, A Vagrant!

The Canadian Sorry stands out as a rich point** in Canadian languaculture; it’s a global stereotype; most Canadians willingly admit their over-usage of sorry; and most non-Canadians COMPLETELY miss the point of the Canadian Sorry.

So. What is the point of all these miscellaneous sorrys then?

As a Canadian I have my own definition and uses for the Canadian Sorry, and I thought it was pretty likely that other Canadians did as well.  So, I politely (ha!) conducted an informal survey via Facebook and Twitter, asking “how is the ‘Canadian Sorry’ different from a regular sorry? How do you use it?” and the responses – all from my wonderful fellow Canadian interneters – sparked a debate and provided a range of answers, many of which overlapped. So, from here I wanted to explore the uses and meanings of this cultural phenomenon.

Canadian+stats.+Sorry+i+see+that+you+are+busy+right_be1e3d_3967305

NB: This is a (hopefully obviously) satirical twitter account

Within the languaculture of Canada I think the over-usage of ‘sorry’ functions as a social lubricant, and a useful device to ease communication difficulties.  It’s a marker of politeness, and can be used in situations of both positive and negative face. ‘Sorry’ is used in a wide range of situations and depending on context, has a wide range of meaning; personally, I’d say the least used instance of ‘sorry’ is with actual apologetic intent. Through my own ‘sorrying’ and the responses received from my admittedly small, and informal survey, these are my thoughts on the common situational uses of the Canadian Sorry, and the implied meanings.

The Facebook responses received laid out 9 scenarios in which Canadians use ‘sorry’.

  1. When someone bumps into you
  2. When you bump into someone
  3. When asking someone to repeat themselves
  4. When asking for goods or services, such as the cheque after dinner
  5. When passing someone in a crowded space
  6. Expressing genuine apology
  7. Expressing an empathic state (I’m so sorry to hear that)
  8. In place of thank-you
  9. During a pause in conversation, when your interlocutor is waiting on your response or comment

images

Ian & Will Ferguson, authors of How to be a Canadian (even if you’re already one) claim “Canadians say sorry often, but rarely apologize”.  I tend to agree. Sorry if you don’t.  Let’s examine, shall we?

Scenarios 1, 6 & 7 fall into the category of genuine apologetic or empathic intent, and are largely unremarkable. These uses are common to American, Australian, UK and NZ English speakers as well.

Scenario 8 is totally new to me, but was reported by one Facebook respondent. I really need examples of this one!

Scenario 9 functions as a type of genuine apology, meaning both “sorry to keep you waiting” and “hold on, I’m thinking”. It could also be interpreted as a conversational placeholder, indicating to the interlocutor that the speaker is not yet giving up his or her conversational turn.

Scenarios 2-5 reflect the use of ‘sorry’ as a replacement for ‘excuse me’ or another attention getting linguistic device.  In these instances, sorry can be viewed as an expression of negative politeness. It is worth noting that in English speaking countries, most requests are phrased as indirect speech acts, so the use of sorry is almost a doubling up of negative politeness – “sorry, could I please get the cheque?” is a likely structure for scenario 4.

However, there are definite semantic quirks built into this proliferation of sorry.

Take scenario 1. Here’s what we really mean.

Bill: *is bumped into*

Bill: “sorry”
gloss: [WHAT AM I, INVISIBLE? I’M RIGHT HERE BUDDY]

Ted: “sorry!”

Bill: “…”
gloss: [Oh, well then. Ok.]

~ Life carries on ~

A prime example of this comes from a Canadian friend living in Australia who shared a story about going grocery shopping; a stranger bumped into her in the aisle, and my Canadian friend responded with an automatic ‘sorry’. However, the stranger didn’t respond, and as the individual walked away, my now irritated friend called out “Fine, then I’m not sorry!”

Overall, I’d call the Canadian Sorry a politeness strategy that functions broadly as a social lubricant. Canadians will ask for what they want, and aren’t afraid to do so – however, we’d prefer to be polite while doing the asking.  Utilising the Canadian Sorry as we do allows us to politely make our needs and wants known, without overtly imposing on others.  If that confuses the rest of the world, well, we’re sorry about that.

** A languacultural rich point is linguistically simple upon first assessment, but also contains a layered richness of cultural and semantic meaning. This variation of cultural and semantic meanings will contain commonalities that participants in the native culture will identify with, but it will also contain a set of differences, which provokes (often fierce) debate among the same native culture participants.

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