Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Culture of Sorry

While visiting around America I couldn't help but notice how often the phrase “I'm sorry” was bandied about. People were sorry for burping and for misspeaking. On the bus they were sorry for walking down the aisle. My dear Marjorie was sorry for just about everything from the cold weather to having to work while I visited, and my friends George and Chris were sorry I broke my leg and sorry for the resultant pain and inconvenience.

What a regretful people they seem to be, those of the culture of 'sorry'!

Don't get me wrong: I appreciate humility, sincerity and politeness. I'm wont to practice them myself. It just seemed that there is an awful lot of 'sorry' going around these days. Even watching television shows one hears 'sorry' often, and for any given reason.

'Sorry' comes to us from Old English – sarig, from sar meaning 'sore'. Curiously enough, one of the definitions of 'sore' is 'angry' or 'upset'. Those two emotions, 'sorry' and 'sore' are at polar ends of the spectrum, yet share a root word. This has no bearing on this topic but does make for an interesting aspect of our language. Maybe it is not as expanded as we thought?

Back to the culture of sorry.

The concept of 'sorry' as regret has been popularized in everything from songs to that eponymous board game, the object of which is to boot your opponent's token back to start. As you can imagine, no player is actually regretful of defeating their adversary. In that sense, 'sorry' is supposed to be said facetiously, all while laughing at the misfortune of others. As you can see by the tagline – The game of sweet revenge, regret does not come into play at all.

Now, take a look at a song lyric by John Denver, from his song I'm Sorry:

Im sorry for the way things are in China
Im sorry, things ain't what they used to be
But more than anything else, Im sorry for myself
'Cause youre not here with me

Why should he be sorry for the way things are in China? And what do things in China have to do with his heartbreak at being without his love?

And what of 'sorry' in China?

Some might be apalled that, after sneezing (as loudly as possible and without covering one's mouth), the sneezer does not excuse him/herself. Or after burping at the dinner table, or when jostling someone on the bus. In fact, 'sorry' is not an everyday part of the vernacular in China.

不好意思 (bu hao yi si) – 'not good meaning/idea/opinion' literally translated, taken to mean 'excuse me'. Another definition is 'embarrassment'.
对不起 – (dui bu qi) with its many meanings including to pair and to be opposite, indicating negation and standing for 'to rise' or 'to raise' is the generally accepted, more profound way to say 'I'm sorry'. I can see the intent of the first but the second escapes me completely. 

One of my Chinese friends explained that a simple comma insertion can change the meaning of dui bu qi like so: dui, bu qi. That phrase then means 'Yes, impotence'. We had a nice laugh about the suggestiveness of that – a man admitting he is impotent, but then I thought: what if it means social impotence rather than sexual? In that case, saying: “Yes, I'm helpless (impotent), may I ask? - a common phrase used to ask for help or directions that makes all the sense in the world.

And how does one express profound regret in China? 抱歉 – bao qian does actually mean 'to express regret'. Yet it is seldom used, and that is good, in my opinion. Save the phrases with deep meaning for suitable occasions.  

Remember that band of Chinese travelers I chanced upon while stuck in my nightmare at LAX (please see 'People' entry, posted February 2015)? They couldn't believe I had been left on my own. Not once did 'sorry' cross their lips although, by their countenance I could see they felt badly for me. 

In the west, it is customary to say 'sorry for your loss' to survivors when someone they love dies. 'Sorry, I didn't hear you' when in conversation. 'Sorry for the delay' if you're late meeting someone. 'Sorry, I can't go along with that' if you are in disagreement. 'Sorry, they've all gone' to a party latecomer. 

Isn't this extended over-use of 'sorry' putting this potentially very impactful word in danger of meaninglessness? Should one say 'sorry' without actually feeling regret? And is every regret as deep? Is there a way to express degrees of 'sorry' without constantly using that word?

'Love' suffered much the same fate a few decades ago. Now, people are afraid of saying it, instead calling it 'The L-word', as though it were as nasty as 'the F-word'. NOTE: 'The L-word' is not to be mistaken for the television show of the same name, or for liberalism in politics.

In this world of über-political correctness, it seems our most profound emotions are being washed down, faded out, over-used and misrepresented. If I say 'sorry' to people I might bump into on the bus, how could I convince my dearest friends that I'm sorry if something grieves them deeply? Why are we cheapening our feelings?

I'm sorry: I think the word 'sorry' is overexposed. What do you think? 

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