Or: British politeness at its very worst
“Sorry, excuse me, please, sorry” is one of the most common phrases I have heard on the London underground, followed by an answering “So sorry, Sir/Madame, excuse me”. At first, I didn’t think much of it since the British are known for their politeness. I didn’t even mind when I started to mirror their constant stream of excuses. Only when I muttered an apology to my cup of Earl Grey after putting it on the table with more force than intended I began to seriously worry. It is one thing to say sorry to a person, but addressing an inanimate object takes apologising to an entire new level.
But when did I become so British that I completely forgot about my German ignorance?
Ever since I caught myself saying sorry to all kind of things, I started observing the British and what I now call their “sorry culture”. If I ever attempted to count the times an average British citizen apologises on one day alone, I bet it would be far more than one hundred times. To someone who comes from a society with a very direct way of saying things, it took me quite some time getting used to the British way of phrasing a polite request, never mind a sincere apology. The way of saying sorry is not only defining when it comes to the culture, but also the mentality of the two countries.
We Germans hardly ever apologise, at least not in our everyday lives. We communicate a lot through looks and facial expressions or acknowledging nods. There’s no need to voice your regrets when bumping into someone while exiting the train when you can communicate the feeling with shoving your way through the crowd. In Germany, people don’t care. It’s rush hour, the train is crowded, you have to get out, so you make your way through. It’s physics, isn’t it? Newton proved that there can only be one body in one place at a time. So we believe Newton and we just assume that our fellow train travellers understand and would do the same were the roles reversed.
In Britain, there’s one simple rule: never assume anything, not even laws of nature defined by an English physicist. Or if you do, then assume the worst case scenario and try your very best to prevent it. If you’re British and find yourself on a train at the peak of rush hour, it’ll likely be your worst nightmare. Bumping into the person in front of you is completely out of question because then they’ll think you did it on purpose and will report you to the police which will result in you ending up with imprisonment for assault. Following that logic, shifting back and risk bumping into the person behind you in order to prevent collision with person nr. 1 is not going to happen either. And don’t step onto the feet of the pregnant woman sitting to your right, because that will guarantee you the loathing stares of all passengers on the carriage – just like doing the same unforgivable thing to the old lady to your left. Vanishing into thin air or disappearing altogether are your only options, really – or at least pretend to look like you’re trying to disappear.
In all fairness, that was (only slightly) exaggerated and it was written with nothing but fondness for this charmingly awkward way of thinking. But the British will probably never understand what kind of minefields we Non-Brits are walking when entering a conversation with one of you. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time vehemently declining things I really wanted out of sheer terror that I might be too presumptuous by accepting them on the spot with nothing but an honest ‘thank you’. I reckon that the rule of thumb of accepting a cookie only after the fifth time it’s been offered to you does apply. Therefore, being overly careful has turned into something akin to a mantra for me, settling so deep in my subconsciousness that I even started apologising to tea cups. After all, I don’t want to be a walking stereotype for German rudeness and being too direct.
For instance, on my way home I witnessed a scene on the underground so British it might as well have been straight out of a film. A man offered an elderly lady his seat. The passenger sitting next to her realised that she was accompanied by her husband and daughter, therefore, he stood up as well and offered the seat to the lady’s husband who politely declined. Instead, he motioned for the man to sit down again, but instead of doing so, the man went to offer his seat to the couple’s daughter who also refused to sit down. They argued for half of the time it took the train to travel from Oxford Circus to Warren Street until, eventually, the daughter took the man’s seat. In Germany, we don’t have these kind of problems because people don’t offer seats to others in the first place. In that conversation alone, it must habe been half a dozen excuses.
But what if you’re really sorry?
That question keeps haunting me because if you keep apologising simply for existing, then how is a ‘Sorry’ still of the same value it represents according to the Oxford dictionary? The definition says that ‘Sorry’ is a word referring to “feeling sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, especially because something unpleasant has happened or been done.” So maybe, there’s an urgent need in Britain to look that definition up once in a while and to remember that “Sorry” is not the equivalent of a conversation starter, another word to fill the awkward silence or a way to make other people realise that it’s actually them who should be the ones apologising.
For once, maybe the British can actually learn something from us Germans: Sometimes, a gesture says so much more than words, though maybe not an elbow to the ribs in an overcrowded underground carriage.