The Polymorphism of “Sorry”

The word sorry is a complicated one. There are at least three completely different ways in which it is used in English and all three usages are fairly common.

First, and most obviously, when someone has committed an error and recognizes their mistake, it is apt for them to apologize by saying that they are sorry. Of course, besides simply pointing out that the other person is aware of their error, the word also carries the intent of acting in a way as to not commit the same error in future. That’s easy. That’s the most common way that we use the word sorry. And this is also the way we use it cross-culturally. There are two more usages of the word which I am inclined to believe are culture-specific. Indeed, I myself grew accustomed to these usages only after I moved to the West.

The second usage appears in contexts where someone declines an invitation or more generally is involved in delivering a message of rejection. This could be a friend who declines to attend a wedding (“Sorry, I can’t make it!”) or a university informing a candidate that their application was rejected (“Sorry, we had many great applicants this year.”) or a restaurant informing you that they don’t have any more tables for the evening (“Sorry, we’re fully booked!”). A lot of people at this point might think that this fairly common use of the word sorry must surely transcend culture. Curiously, that is not the case. As a kid growing up in India I had never heard of such a usage in my mother tongue, Tamil. In Tamil, the person delivering the message would simply state the fact (“Sir, we don’t have any tables left this evening.”), while pausing to allow the listener time to comprehend the message. The pause actually functions in a more important way. It gives the listener time to save face, who presumably might say something along the lines of “Oh, that’s not a problem.” (even if it well might be). Among Tamil speaking South Asians it is completely unnecessary for the speaker to apologize–indeed, why would an apology be needed here? Of course, in the West, the word sorry here is used only to soften the blow and not as an apology, but to a South Asian’s ears, the word in this context is bound to misinterpreted as a misplaced and unnecessary apology. In the highly contextual cultures of South Asia, the embarrassment of the listener is felt by the speaker even before the message is delivered, which is why the all important pause exists after the delivery–to allow the listener to save face. Even in the absence of an explicit word to soften the blow, the tone of voice, cadence of speech, etc. are appropriately modulated so that the message is unmistakeable despite missing the actual word–it is all about the context there!

My experience in the West has always been jarring for this reason. As soon as I hear a message of rejection, the accompanying “Sorry about that!”, even if well meant as a tool to soften the blow, ends up functioning as a preemptive strike robbing me of the time to say something to that makes my original need appear less important than I may have initially let on. It seems the concept of saving face does not exist in the West. Or if it does, people in conversation are not culturally trained in some specific ways to help the other person to save face.

Moving on, the third way sorry is used is perhaps the strangest of the lot. Here it is used to convey empathy. When your Western friend says that he is sorry about your ski accident he is conveying the message that he feels your pain, and perhaps also wants you to know that he cares. This is can be especially confusing for someone who is prone to interpret the sorry as one stemming from a perceived fault of the speaker (ergo anyone from South Asia), which usually of course does not exist in this context. This can lead to a lot of head-scratching, when hearing apologetic messages when you are in pain. What the hell!

I am confident that anyone undertaking the same journey I did in my early twenties would greatly benefit from taking a few minutes to understand some of these foreign usages of the word sorry. It certainly would’ve prevented me–the bumbling fool I am–from conducting myself like an elephant in a china shop shortly after I moved here.

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