Anglican bishop gives masterclass in the art of the apology

Jan 14, 2019 by

by Jules Gomes, Rebel Priest:

There’s the English apology and there’s the Hebrew apology. The person delivering an English apology has to be awfully sorry, terribly sorry or frightfully sorry. Consider this letter written by a civil servant ordering an alien to leave the country from the Hungarian humourist George Mikes How to be an Alien.

Dear Sir, We are very sorry to tell you that the Government has looked through all your papers again and has decided that you cannot stay in this country. We are terribly sorry to tell you that you must leave in the next twenty-four hours. If you do not, we will have to make you leave. Your servant, XXX

Now fast forward from 1946, when Mikes wrote his classic, to 2004 and dive into social anthropologist Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. It is a book I recommended to international students when I was a university chaplain.

“We use the word ‘sorry’ as a prefix to almost any request or question: ‘Sorry, but do you know if this train stops at Banbury?’ ‘Sorry, but is this seat free?’ ‘Sorry – do you have the time?’ ‘Sorry, but you seem to be sitting on my coat.’ We say ‘sorry’ if our arm accidentally brushes against someone else’s when passing through a crowded doorway; even a ‘near miss’, where no actual physical contact takes place, can often prompt an automatic ‘sorry’ from both parties.”

“We often say ‘sorry’ when we mean ‘excuse me’ (or ‘get out of my way’), such as when asking someone to move so we can get past them. An interrogative ‘sorry?’ means ‘I didn’t quite hear what you said – could you repeat it?’ (or ‘what?’). Clearly, all these sorries are not heartfelt, sincere apologies. Like ‘nice’, ‘sorry’ is a useful, versatile, all-purpose word, suitable for all occasions and circumstances. When in doubt, say ‘sorry’. Englishness means always having to say you’re sorry.”

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