Subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Or does it?

It must have happened to you too: You step on someone's foot and they apologises to you. The British love saying sorry, but do they really mean it?

Few words are as cherished by the English as sorry. Brits are sorry if they can’t hear you, even sorrier if they can’t follow your line of argument. They are even sorry if they win you at tennis or if you knock into them!

Elton John once declared sorry to be the hardest word, an obvious untruth for which he should be truly … sorry!

Apparently Brits utter the word sorry 368 million times a day in the UK. And the average Briton says sorry an exhausting (and rather improbable) 1.9 million times during their lifetime. It’s a sorry state of affairs, the kind of statistic Archie – the buttoned-up character played by John Cleese in the movie A Fish Called Wanda - was talking about when he exclaimed: "Do you know what it’s like being British!"

But are the British really sorry?

Not really. when Brits say sorry they often are saying it as a brush off "sorry I don't want to buy anything today" or start a put down in a polite way "I'm sorry but I think your argument is rubbish". It can also be sarcastic "sorry I didn't realise you were such a fantatsic dancer". Yes it is sometimes used to show deep and genuine remorse.....but more often than not it's not!

The origins of the British love affair with sorry are almost certainly rooted in the class system and the national obsession with manners. Most British people are aware of its absurdity, but secretly enjoy it anyway. It is no coincidence that one of the nation’s longest-running radio programs is the BBC’s I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue.

The best way to deal with this sorry state of affairs is to indulge it. Let us make our daily apologies, but try to understand that not all expressions of remorse are equal. Sorry about that.

Back to more Coffee Break