Is It Possible to Apologise Too Much?

Jamie Rodney apologies.

“Jamie, can you f*cking stop f*cking apologising every time I f*cking breathe near you?” I was about an hour into a work trial, having applied for a job as a dishwasher, and the chef was losing patience with me.

“Right ok.” I said, and then automatically added, “Sorry.”

I never did get that job, surprisingly enough.

Nobody who knows me at all will be surprised by that. I am the only person I know who apologises while sexting. When I email this article to my editor, I will probably preface it by saying “Sorry to bother you”, even though submitting articles to her is literally my job. I have, more than once, apologised to people so frequently for something that they have been more annoyed by my apologies than the thing I was apologising for.

Obviously this makes me a special case in the unnecessary apology stakes wherever I go, but it’s especially noticeable in St Andrews. British people – with the possible exception of our Canadian cousins – are second to none in our use of the S-word. Coming to a university with a relatively high proportion of people from less apologetic cultures means that if, in Glasgow, the frequency with which I apologise is a bit strange, in St Andrews it’s totally bizarre.

I realise that I’m almost halfway through this article, and I haven’t told you anything other than the fact Brits apologise a lot, and that people find me annoying – neither of which should be news to anyone. But bear with me, because the clash of cultures with differing degrees of remorse in the Bubble has made me realise something important.

British people, especially those who live in close proximity to people from other cultures, seem to take a perverse pride in the amount we apologise. I guess it helps to reinforce the stereotype we have of ourselves as a polite people, a people who do things properly, especially as compared to the rest of the world. Or, at least, as compared to Americans. Now, put aside the arrogant, not to say prejudiced nature of these sentiments for a moment (although using apologies as a medium for arrogance and prejudice has to be the most British thing I’ve heard in ages): What if we’re getting it wrong? What if the British manners we’re so proud of aren’t as cultivated as we think? Guys, what if the Americans are actually the polite ones?

Again, bear with me. I’m sure everyone reading this has been in a situation where they’ve had to apologise for something genuinely serious. Maybe you hurt someone’s feelings, maybe you accidentally pushed your baby brother’s pram down a hill onto a busy road (in four-year-old-Jamie’s defence, the wheel-locks on prams are really fun to play with). Am I the only one who thinks that those apologies seem… glib? Unconvincing? No matter how sincerely meant they are, it’s a bit of a stretch to think you can use the same social technique you’d use after bumping into someone to excuse yourself for dropping the C-bomb in front of a relative stranger’s toddler (In 19-year old Jamie’s defence…. yeah there isn’t one.)

What I’m trying to say here is – and, as a serial apologist I know this better than anyone – maybe the British approach to apologies has actually dulled it’s meaning with overuse? Maybe if we apologised less it would mean more? If nothing else, I need to cut down on it before I lose any more jobs.

University isn’t just about academics, it’s about becoming a better person. With that in mind, here’s a proposal: Find your most obnoxious American friend (If you don’t know any that probably means you are one), and start to model your behaviour on them. If I’m right, your etiquette will vastly improve.

And if I’m wrong… Well, I don’t know. Sorry, I guess.

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