All apologies

Britons' use of 'sorry' evinces a culture scared of doing the wrong thing. A bit of positivity would help, says Robert Segal

December 17, 2009

The theme of the 1970 bestselling novel Love Story by the American classicist Erich Segal (no relation) is that "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It has not taken 15 years of residence in the UK for me to recognise that this line would never fit a British audience. Here you have to say sorry all the time, and probably ten times a day if you're in love.

Brits apologise for everything - not just for big things but for even the slightest thing. Buses apologise for not being in service. Train managers apologise for delays, not just of hours but even of minutes. Americans apologise as well, but usually only for things they have just done, such as inadvertently bumping into someone else.

Brits apologise even more for things not yet done. Apologies are offered in advance, like pre-emptive strikes.

When I came from the US to Lancaster University in autumn 1994 and attended my department's first meeting of the year, I was taken aback to see atop the agenda the names of colleagues who had apologised in advance for not attending. No reason for missing the meeting was needed. Colleagues who likewise failed to attend but did not send apologies in advance were considered uncouth. Being absent multiple times with prior apologies seemed more acceptable than being absent once without one.

I have never doubted the sincerity of apologies. If they were merely perfunctory, they would be of scant interest. They are of interest because of what they reveal and what they effect.

On the one hand, apologies are efforts either to prevent conflicts (when offered in advance) or to defuse them (when offered immediately afterwards). One apologises for putting oneself first, for seeking to get ahead of others. "Stepping on someone else's toes" stands for ambitiousness. To apologise in advance for not attending a meeting is to acknowledge that one has put oneself ahead of the group. The apology is for self-centredness.

On the other hand, apologies are compensations. In the US, to apologise in advance for missing a meeting would hardly be equivalent to having attended. In the UK, it is nearly equivalent. Saying sorry here is more than an act of contrition. It is like word magic. It makes up for what one has failed to do.

Americans as well as Brits appreciate apologies. The criminal in either country who shows remorse does not undo the crime, yet victims and their kin still demand it. But Brits want apologies in cases of striving, not just of criminality. Americans don't apologise for striving. If anything, not striving requires an apology.

The American phrase "You're welcome" is the opposite of "I'm sorry". The phrase is positive, not negative. Rather than alleviating a conflict between parties, the line reinforces a bond between them. After all, the subject is the other party, not oneself. The line completes the expression of gratitude uttered by the other party's "Thank you". Whereas saying sorry lessens tension, "You're welcome" closes the deal. It is a win-win situation, not a zero-sum game. Each side feels good, not bad.

"Sorry" expresses shame or guilt. "You're welcome" expresses confidence and sociability. A culture that always says sorry is wary of doing the wrong thing. A culture typified by "You're welcome" approves of getting ahead.

This cultural division evinces itself in university life. Only the most prestigious British universities have belatedly begun soliciting money from alumni. American universities, even the most ordinary, do so all the time. British ones assume that alumni, if solicited, will typically say no, followed by sorry. American ones take for granted that many alumni will say yes, and cheerfully.

British universities depend on the Government's largesse to survive. American universities seek out money from companies and foundations as well as from graduates. Of course, America's public universities depend on appropriations from state legislatures, but even they have developed endowments and do not live hand to mouth. And most American colleges and universities are private, not public.

British universities are as good as American ones, but the culture of which they are a part needs to believe it and to act accordingly.

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