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.”

Go Canada!


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.
  • 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.

27 responses to “OOOOooooo…..Sorry….

  1. For a second I thought you said you told people you were sorry for “humping into us.” And I thought, man I’ve got to move to Canada NOW!

  2. Speaking of the British I have started a letter to the Queen.

    Dear Queen Mom,

    It does not appear to be working out really well in the colonies and I was wondering could I come home and live with you and Dad?

    Yes I technically know that I am of German heritage, but you all did own this country at one time and I am ready to come home.

    I will even walk your Corgis.

    Let me know….text me or send me a Tweet…you can also friend me on Facebook…K?

  3. Since you are always in a hurry you would hate it here because in the south we all apologize but it comes with a story. For instance the old lady would have said to you, “Oh dear, I’m so sorry I was standing on this side and got in your way. My niece usually brings me shopping and gets the doors for me because I have arthritits in my hands and these doors can be a little hard on me. She got a call from Kenny’s third grade teacher just an hour before we were supposed to leave and she has to make 24 cupcakes. I sure hope I wasn’t in your way.” And if you were a southerner and had beat her to the apology you would have said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I should have been paying attention but the salesgirl was on the phone with her boyfriend and now I’m afraid I’m running late. My daughter gets cranky if she gets home before I do and I haven’t started dinner. She’s perfectly capable of cooking herself, but you know how teenagers are. Here, let me get this door for you.”

  4. I quite like the “I’m sorry I smashed you into the sideboards with the ferocity of a speeding freight train but you look cute when you have a dazed concussed look in your eyes and three missing teeth.” which I imagine is said a lot on the ice hockey rink. Canadian players are especially sorry when they do that to American players.

  5. Geez we really have to try to get you some help up there in Ottawa. Always in a hurry. Always with so much on your mind. What is it with you? Do you have countries to conquer before lunch or something?

    I know civil servants are overworked but really the nation won’t crumble if you wait 10 more seconds on the escalator. It must just about cripple you to take an elevator and have to move the same speed as the others.

    Stop running down old ladies, and interrupting sales staff romances and enjoy the trip.

    It is perhaps wise, and lucky for all the rest of us, that you largely eschew driving.
    Sorry if all this seems a it harsh.

  6. This made me smile. There was a time in my life when I habitually said sorry for everything. And really meant it. For nothing. I’d sneeze and apologize. I’d apologize for dropping my pencil. For turning the pages of a magazine too loudly. It was a time in my life when I desperately wished I could be invisible.

    Sorry for the long comment 😉

  7. Dr. Monkey – Sorry for the misunderstanding. If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard a lot of post-humping sorrys!

    Cedar – Sorry, I don’t think you’re allowed to address her as Queen Mom. You have to call her Majesty or something. Also, I think you’re allowed to go over and just hang out if you want. You don’t need permission.

    Geewits – Sorry. What? I was already reading the next comment… ha ha

    LGS – Sorry, we are rather clumsy on the ice aren’t we? Hockey is really just one big excuse to say sorry a lot. That’s why we invented it.

    Dave1949- Sore -EEEEE! Probably if I drove regularly I wouldn’t have to walk so fast. I’ve noticed that people who walk as their transportation all walk really fast. They can’t just stroll casually through their errands or to work or they’d never get anything done. Sorry if that was too argumentative.

    Christine – Sorry you used to feel that way. I know a few people like that. Probably the lady I almost beaned with the door was someone like that. I hope you’ve become more visible now. And assertive.

    Friar – Sorry, did you say BEST friends? Or just acquaintances? And on this topic, are you actually unhappy if you are served a vegetarian meal? Would you stop for a burger on your way home from the vegetarian meal? I know people who do that. They don’t feel like they’ve eaten unless meat was involved somewhere along the line.

  8. it would be interesting to note at what age saying sorry begins. i used to smile at playgroups when mothers would FORCE their 18 months old to say sorry for grabbing a toy and threaten to leave if they didn’t say sorry. i think it’s a pretty strange concept for little kids.
    edie is just starting to say sorry on her own without me influencing her to do so. grace is rarely sorry for anything she does (lots of confidence that kid!) there is no way she is going to apologize for someone else’s wrongdoing.

  9. 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 hate when they do that! I was once obliged to have an argument in a restaurant with a waitress who refused to believe me when I said I hadn’t ordered seafood pasta (I had ordered romanov, how the two can be mixed up I’ll never know).

    Mr. Jazz finally said, why would she order seafood pasta when she’s allergic to the stuff. I’m not, but he shut down the argument with that one.

    Dumbass waitress still wasn’t convinced.

  10. I have to say, this is why i love the blog. Because you quoted Will Ferguson.

    I absolutely love Will Ferguson.

    Especially his book Why I hate Canadians… absolute classic.

  11. @XUP

    Oh, I’m not a fanatic. It’s not like I absolutely have to have meat every meal. I can have several veggie meals in a row, and I dont’ have to go out for a burger immediately afterwards.

    As long as my belly’s fully..I’m happy. Just so long as I wouldnt’ have to sustain those habits permanently. I think after a few days, I’d need to eat some animal protein.

  12. Hilarious! And so very true. I mutter a sorry to people when they bump into me in such a manner that they know I’m not sorry and they should have apologized to me.

  13. You know, we need a word or phrase other than sorry to express sympathy. The dialogue chez G goes like this:
    JG “Ouch!”
    MG “I’m sorry you hit your thumb with your hammer/”
    JG “It’s not your fault.”

    JG is not a typical Canadian’ ie one who would apologise to the hammer.

    On the other hand, I would be really, really sorry if you ever stopped writing stuff like this.

  14. In the Panhandle, “So Sorry” comes with an explanation, a re-inactment, a gallant effort to find ice-flowers-chair-physician-or at least a Coke, and a begging for forgiveness, and a proclamation of undying love.

    For example, so sorry I have written this incredibly long comment that is more about ME than it is about your post! It’s just that I loved the post–believe me when I say Alex Trebek knows no remorse, remind me to tell you about when I knew him back in rodeo clown days–and all of your ideas and they got me THINKING. But here I am, prattling on. Should I chip in for more bandwidth for you, honey, because I so would. For you, I would do ANYTHING, you are simply my favoritest ever and I can’t believe I never leave my feedreader any more. I suck. I’m so sorry! Please PROMISE you forgive me?

  15. Escalators? They’re meant to whisk you to the next floor while you stand still and have a rest. If you want to run to the next floor you need to take the stairs. And before you thank me for clearing that up for you, let me just say ‘You’re welcome!’

  16. Meanie – Sorry I don’t have the answer to your question. I assume, like anything else, kids just mimic what they hear from adults until it becomes a natural part of their speech.

    Jazz – Sorry for your unpleasant restaurant experience. Whatever happened to that nice “the customer is always right” adage/policy? Those were the days. We could mess with business owners to our heart’s content. ‘

    Alison – Sorry, I don’t think Alex is sorry – not with those zillions of American dollars he’s raking in each year just to stand around reading stuff off little cards for half an hour a day

    Justin – I’m sorry I don’t quote Will Ferguson more often. I will keep your love for him in mind next time I need a pithy quote.

    Friar – Sorry for making assumptions. You know I didn’t consciously set out to become a vegetarian. I just realized one day that I hadn’t had any meat in over a month and I thought I’d see how long I could keep it up – not thinking “oh, I’m going veggie now.” Just thinking “not eating meat would save me a lot of money and would certainly cut down on the saturated fats in my diet.” The rest is history.

    Sky – I’m sorry people are so rude. They should watch where they’r going so you’re not forced to utter fake apologies. What a position to put a person in, eh?

    Mary – I’m sorry you’re married to a man who won’t apologize to a hammer. What a barbarian!

    Deb – I’m really sorry I don’t hear from you more often. All this complimentary talk is has totally made my day. How could I possibly be the favoritest of the Queen of the American Blogland? I’m mystified. And I really want to know more about Alex Trebek. I suspect he’s a poseur. I remember him from High Rollers with Rula Lenska. He wasn’t an all-knowing genius back then. Also, he had an afro and he could never keep his big Canadian eyes out of Rula’s cleavage.

    Trashy – Sorry? Which woman are you talking about? The door woman?

    Robin – I’m sorry, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Did you not see the YouTube clip I posted a couple of weeks ago with Rick Mercer setting us all straight once and for all on escalator etiquette? (And incidentally totally agreeing with me) Escalators are meant to expedite the moving of people from one floor to the next. The idea is that they’re faster than stationary stairs – not slower. I can get from one floor to the next much faster if I take the stairs than if I stand daydreaming on an escalator.

  17. I’m the queen of saying “sorry” in everyday situations. The only time I can’t seem to say it is when I need to say it the most.

  18. Sorry, another ‘sorry’ example: when playing competitive games, I tend to apologize for doing well AND for doing poorly. eg. in tennis, if I miss the ball I apologize; if I smash it and my opponent is not able to hit it back, I also apologize. emotionally exhausting! no wonder I’ve taken up yoga, instead!

  19. Canadian “sorrys”, in fact, almost always mean something “surly and negative” and that we’re apparently all “passive-aggressive creeps.”

    As opposed to many people from ‘certain’ other countries who are just plain aggressive creeps! LOL

    Its better to say sorry then to punch someone in the face!

  20. Chris – Sorry?

    Mo – Sorry you can’t manage to say sorry when you need to. I think when you say it all the other times, it somehow becomes inadequate when it’s required.

    Fuzzy – Sorry, but you’re going to find lots of reasons to say sorry when you do yoga, too. You’ll spend a lot of time apologizing to your poor body for contorting it so unfeelingly.

    Hannah – Sorry but I don’t know who you could possibly mean by “aggressive creeps”

    Lebowski – Sorry, but that was terribly amusing

  21. Had that incident happened in the UK, you would both have apologised to each other. Repeatedly. (Unless it was in London, which barely counts as the UK, in which case you would have deliberately have tried to flatten her with the door for BEING IN YOUR WAY!)

  22. Loth – I’d heard that about the UK (except London). I always suspected that we dragged that strange custom over to Canada from over there.