Elton John sang ‘Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word’ (1976), but this is simply not applicable to the British! It is estimated that each of us says “sorry” up to twenty times a day, particularly women. This is due to the value we place on politeness and good manners. We even pre-empt other people’s civility when we automatically apologise first.
Today’s ubiquitous “sorry” may not be intended to convey sorrow at all. If it does, it usually has to be preceded by “I’m so very..” or “I’m truly..”. In most cases, it is used to show that we mean no harm, rudeness or bluntness. It softens a question, request or comment and avoids the horror of being direct or sounding bossy.
It is so versatile that “Sorry?”means either “Pardon?” or “How dare you!”, depending on the tone of voice. “Sorry but could I…?” acknowledges the desire for the other person’s co-operation in advance, while “Sorry but could you…?” acknowledges any inconvenience we may be causing the other person. It puts ourselves in their shoes and is a reflection of how we would wish to be treated in that situation.
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