“Sorry seems the be the hardest word” …

– Song by Elton John

… depending on where you come from. Cultures seem to differ on the extent they use “sorry” or its equivalents in everyday speech. To illustrate this point, let’s compare the Dutch and the British, as they seem to be on opposite ends of the “sorry” spectrum.

British people tend to use “sorry” very easily, even when somebody else bumps into them. The Dutch, in contrast, hardly make use of it or its Dutch equivalents, even when a mistake is made. According to the blog article “Why don’t the Dutch say sorry”, this is because of the efficiency drive of the Dutch. The article gives the example of queuing: the Dutch wouldn’t queue out of habit, if there were a quicker way to achieve the goal. According to the article, saying sorry in many cases doesn’t serve a purpose, and that is why the Dutch don’t use it as much as the British, for whom politeness is more important than efficiency.

However, while the article raises some interesting points, it isn’t very complete – as the many comments show. As I lived in the Netherlands for 4.5 years, I agree with one comment in particular:

“The point is that, compared to the Brits (and many other nations too), the Dutch rarely apologise – for anything. This is not just a matter of saying sorry or not when bumping into you. The average Dutch person seems not to be prepared to admit mistakes or culpability. They will state their opinions about what did or did not happen, but rarely (by comparison) are they willing to concede and apologise for any effect their actions may have had on you. This is as true in commerce as it is in everyday life. In industry, it is particularly acute, as the individuals do not typically see themselves as ambassadors of that industry. They do not typically feel responsible for the services or goods they are providing, and so will rarely apologise for any problems in those services/goods. They seem to think that the apology would imply that THEY personally had done something wrong, while they are simply a facilitator or some kind. I have had many experiences where they accept that there is a problem, that that has been an inconvenience, that something was confusing or that something different should have happened etc., but where they still did not simply apologize for that. It’s like there’s a collective national mental block about apologising. As a customer struggling with an issue, this can be more than a little upsetting (unless you’re Dutch of course, in which case you presumably don’t even notice).”

When I moved to the Netherlands, I hardly noticed that the Dutch hardly say sorry – perhaps due to my own drive for efficiency over purposeless politeness. However, towards the end of my stay, I had become really annoyed with it. Just as that comment states, when mistakes are made which cause trouble to services we pay for, we can get pretty pissed off at some point when all we hear is a factual explanation of the problem.

That is where I disagree with the above mentioned blog article – In my opinion, saying sorry does serve a purpose. As you may have noticed, I haven’t used the term “apologising” yet. That is because saying sorry isn’t the same as apologising. Like the blog article describes, saying sorry can be “more like an interjection, an ‘oh!’” than an actual apology.

In German, we have the expression “es tut mir Leid”, which literally means “it causes me pain”. With expressions like that, we can show that we feel sorry for the person affected or for what is happening, without making a statement about blame and guilt. I like using that German expression, and have no problem with saying sorry, because I feel that it shows acknowledgement for the person’s situation.

Unfortunately, many people seem to equate saying sorry with admitting guilt, which makes it much harder to use such expressions. For example, when I say “es tut mir Leid” when a person tells me about a bad situation he/ she has to deal with, sometimes those people reply with “it’s not your fault”. In most cases, however, it doesn’t really matter whose fault it is – what matters more is that we receive empathy for being in a bad situation. This is something that Dutch service could learn in my opinion. In cases where we caused some pain (in one form or another) but it truly wasn’t our fault, for example when we arrive late because our flight was delayed, a simple “sorry” can do wonders in showing respect for people’s time.

To me, saying sorry is about empathy and acknowledgement for other people’s feelings and time. This is why I also mostly disagree with the TED article “Sorry to bother you, but do you say “sorry” too much? What to say instead”. Sure, if we say it too much all the time, it might “make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and [it] can undercut our confidence.” It might also be a good idea to swap “sorry” with a “thank you” in some situations, for example to show appreciation when a friend listens to our rant about a miserable day. That’s what friends are there for, after all. However, if a friend came late, making me wait to order my dinner and said “thanks for waiting” instead of “sorry I am late, but thank you for waiting” I might get pissed as the former might feel like he/she takes me for granted, while the latter shows appreciation and respect for my time.

I think the TED article exaggerates when suggesting to “eliminate” the usage of “sorry”. However, it may spark a critical look at one’s own usage of this word and I agree that there might be other words or phrases with which respect, empathy and appreciation can also be shown. After all, when we want people to say sorry or even apologise, it may be less important to see them admitting their guilt than receiving empathy for our own situation. We can all make a difference by thinking not about guilt when something unfortunate happens, but about those affected and their need to feel cared for.

Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 2nd June 2022

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