I’m British and my mother tongue is English, I failed French miserably at school, and when I went to work in Mexico last year, despite best intentions I assumed I didn’t have the brain capacity to learn a new language in my twenties.
To begin with, everyday felt like a game of charades from dusk till dawn, as I tried to order food or catch taxis, with no linguistic common ground with anyone I was interacting with. This was exhausting and led to me amazingly picking up a tiny bit of Spanish. Even learning enough to ask What When and Why …Que? Donde? Por que?; and then after a while, the lovely little phrase ‘Lo Siento’. Like most of the Spanish language ‘Lo Siento’ is poetic and unlike a lot of Spanish it is easy for a native English speaker to pronounce; it’s said, like it’s read and with a Spanish accent if I’m feeling confident.
I didn’t really know what Lo Siento meant, but I loved the sound of it. I was told that Lo Siento translates to ‘I’m Sorry’, and it wasn’t difficult for me to find ways to slip it into conversation. After a couple of days one of the kids I was working with turned and asked me bluntly, “Why do you keep apologising?” Taken aback I replied, “Oh do I, Sorry”.Sorry had become a go to response, maybe it’s because I’m British and we’re renowned for our ‘politeness’ or maybe it’s because I’m a woman and this is a patriarchal world we live in, but I say sorry all the time, and definitely way too much for someone who doesn’t really have anything to be apologising for. I had lost the connection that sorry was a word of apology. Colloquially I use it anywhere and everywhere, instead of excuse me, instead of please, and as a sentence filler. I’m used to it, I think we’re all used to it, and I think being British does make us more conversationally apologetic, in the same way we wouldn’t dare question someone pushing in front of a queue. But our words our powerful and by throwing that word around all day long what kind of message are we sending, if every day we’re apologising for our existence? (yes, that sounds a bit drastic, but think about it this way, if someone is constantly ‘taking the (non-existent) blame’, it’s easy to take on and inflict these expectations of blame and responsibility.
And then, why; and I can only speak from experience of being a female, do we apologise for being assertive? For example, if someone is stood in our way and we’d like them to let us past? Why do we say sorry, not excuse me? Or if we didn’t hear something the first time, we day sorry instead of pardon? All this ‘Sorry-ing’ is insinuating that we’ve done something wrong, and then when we really do want to apoligise, the word doesn’t hold much weight anymore.
I guess it’s a completely normal evolution of the English language, but our words have meanings, so I don’t necessarily think it’s productive that we keep apoligising. So, I think I’m going to stew on this one for a while. There’s no conclusion other than that, which maybe in the past, I would have apologised for, but today I am at least, not sorry that I’m not sorry.