You know when Alex Trebek says “OOOoooooooo…sorry…” when a Jeopardy! contestant gets a question wrong and has a lot of money riding on the response? Do you think Alex really feels regret or sorrow? Or do you think Alex is really saying, “I’m sorry that someone as unknowledgeable as you made it through the screening process. Why are you still on my stage?”
Alex Trebek is Canadian. It is often said that Canadians are constantly saying sorry; that we’ll apologize to someone for bumping into us. This is one of the reasons we have a reputation for being polite. It is also one of the reasons that Americans laugh at us.
I assume we came by this apologetic nature from our English roots. The English actually invented the board game, Sorry! back in 1929. A Canadian patent of the game followed in 1932, with the American Parker Brothers snatching it away from both of us a few years later. (I wonder if we apologized to those Parkers as they ran off with our game?)
When you say “sorry” while playing Sorry! you don’t really mean “Oh dear, I feel so terrible that I’m winning and you’re losing.” You really mean, “In your face, sucka!” (Hence the exclamation mark in the name of the game).
In Will Ferguson’s book, How to be Canadian and the 2007 follow-up film by Alex Epstein 12 Ways to Say I’m Sorry (tagline – sorry means never having to say what you really mean) the hypothesis is that this business of Canadians always saying “sorry” isn’t at all an indication of how polite and meek we are. In fact, when Canadians say sorry they mean anything but that they’re actually sorry. Canadian “sorrys”, in fact, almost always mean something “surly and negative” and that we’re apparently all “passive-aggressive creeps.”
Anyhow, the other day I was leaving a building through a double set of glass doors. An older woman was about to enter the building at the same time. I guess she decided that instead of opening her door (on her right), she would just wait for me to open my door and enter through that instead. Foolishly, she decided to wait right in front of my door thinking perhaps that I was going to be opening the door in the customary laconic manner. But that’s not how I roll. When I’m on the move, I move.
I wasn’t really paying attention to what this lazy woman was doing (and remember this is all happening in a matter of seconds) and so came within a hair’s breadth of turning her into a pancake. (Much like the one Wile E. Coyote turns into when an anvil falls on him and he gets all flat and then a truck runs over him while he’s lying there and then maybe some rubble and debris from an explosion he created in the last scene buries him. And then he’s all better in the next scene… which this woman behind the door definitely would not have been.)
So, then after almost getting smacked by my door, the woman apologized to me. But, she looked really angry while saying it. And, rightly so. I should have been apologizing to her since I was the one not paying attention and aggressively flinging doors around. I was about to apologize, but she beat me to it. (Not that I would have meant the apology, of course — she had no business being on the exit side of the doorway, afterall). But she deprived me of my basic Canadian right to say sorry, because it would have been totally redundant if I’d said it after she’d just said it. So I just had to settle for giving her a stern “don’t let it happen again” look.
In Will Ferguson’s book he talks about how many other meanings that seemingly polite “sorry” can have. For instance (and these are my examples so don’t blame Will Ferguson):
- The “I’m in a hurry and you’re in my way” sorry
- i.e.: Saying “sorry” after smacking someone with your bag as you’re trying to get past them on an escalator in the middle of which they are standing frozen into immobility like a proverbial pillar of salt
- The “I’m sorry, you asshole, could you get your elbow out of my face” sorry
- i.e.: Sorry, but your standing on my bare feet with your stilettos
- The “I know you want to talk to me, but I don’t want to listen to you so I’m going to pretend I have something important to do” sorry
- i.e.: Sorry, I really have to take this call. Shut the door on your way out.
- The “Oh just fuck all the way off why don’t you, you touchy prig” sorry.
- i.e.: SORE – EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
- The “pretending to be apologetic for interrupting the sales clerk while she’s chatting on the phone to her boyfriend so she can ring up your overpriced purchase” sorry
- i.e.: Sorry, I know you’re busy, but could I’d just like to pay for this jacket, please (note the doubly polite “please” thrown in at the end, which means we’re super pissed-off)
- The “summoning the waiter apology for having to point out that he’s brought you a plate of shite instead of the meal you ordered” sorry
- i.e.: I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I ordered the curried grenouille.
- The “I can’t believe you just said something so ridiculous, ignorant or stupid interrogatory” sorry
- i.e.: I’m sorry? Did you just say you’re so liberal and open-minded that you even have a friend who’s vegetarian?
- The “gleeful and falsely sympathetic” sorry.
- i.e.: Oh, I’m so sorry that you didn’t get that promotion one of us got and the other didn’t
- The “I’m tired of this argument and want to have sex now” sorry
- i.e.: No example necessary
Of course all these “sorrys” carry with them certain subtle vocal inflections, facial expressions and body postures so that we all know exactly what the other person means or doesn’t mean when they say sorry. No one is fooled by this apparent politeness — it’s just one of those things we do to be civil, like discussed in last week’s courtesy post.
But we also say sorry sometimes and really mean we are filled with sorrow and/or regret.