June 6, 2016
I have noticed a tendency of people when they're in public to say "sorry" rather than "excuse me" when they've committed a minor faux pas, such as bumping into someone or cutting ahead of them in line. Okay, so what? you say. What strikes me about people saying "sorry" on such occasions, here in California at least, is that I get the feeling they actually mean it literally. It's in the intonation. They say it as if they've just run over your foot with a bulldozer and left you crippled for life. "Oh, sorry-sorry-sorry. Sor-ry," they say, in a verbal version of biting a cuticle. It's as if they've arrived at this particular moment of sorriness after a lifetime of having been pounded into apologetic submission. In the briefest of moments, such a "sorry" in the grocery store line sums up a lifetime of chastisement and fear of impending rage, or perhaps a more recently acquired apprehension about the volubility of other humans, as opposed to the expectation that the wronged person will respond as he or she almost invariably does, namely, by saying "Oh, that's okay," or words to that effect.
Of course being sorry is generally a good thing when one has done wrong, intentionally or not. It is what's known as apologizing, which is the accepted method in most societies of acknowledging that one has done a bad, illegal, or hurtful thing. And most people, unless they're exceptionally warped, really do know what's bad, illegal, or hurtful. More apologies and acknowledgements of wrongdoing are needed when people do wrong, especially at the public level. Frequently politicians will go in front of cameras and say that they "made mistakes" or that "errors in judgment were made," or employ some other such weaselly expressions when they really should say, "I did wrong, I knew it was wrong at the time but I did it anyway, and I'm sorry." This is something most of us take pains to teach our children when they're young, so they'll understand the concepts of being accountable for their actions and considerate of the feelings of others.
One of the reasons people cite for not apologizing more often, in the simple straightforward way we are taught to do when we're kids, is that an apology might be taken for an admission of liability in a legal sense, and might expose the person to civil damages. This is largely a myth perpetrated by lawyers and insurance companies, who stand to profit or minimize their losses from peoples' fuck-ups. But speaking as someone who has worked as a lawyer and a mediator for some years I can tell you that if more people apologized there would be far fewer lawsuits, and not the other way around. An apology won't always obviate the payment of money damages, but it can be worth many thousands of dollars, especially in the area of professional malpractice. Hell hath no fury like a wronged plaintiff who perceives that the defendant isn't even sorry for what he's done. Naturally there are times when the defendant and the plaintiff view things so diametrically differently that neither has a consciousness of wrongdoing, but I have observed many situations where apologies all around have had a profound and salutary effect.
Sometimes saying sorry doesn't get it, of course, and forgiveness is in any event up to the receiver of the apology, whether it be an individual or the public at large. But it's almost always a good way to go. If Richard Nixon had gone on television and told the American people that he was sorry for having condoned and engaged in political dirty tricks and subsequent attempts to cover them up, who knows how differently things might have turned out? Maybe Gerald Ford would have remained an obscure footnote in Vice Presidential history rather than the obscure footnote in Presidential history that he is today. Then again, an apology probably would have been impossible for the Nixon we knew.
But let's get back to "sorry" as a substitute in superficial public discourse for "excuse me" or "pardon me." To be sure, the people of Southern California have plenty to be sorry for, collectively speaking. The invention of the word "bitchin" for one thing. Plastic surgery, for another. The Kardashian family. A hell of a lot of movies. Most of what's on television. Really, the list is almost endless. Maybe that's why the way people say "sorry" in the LA area seems so much more personal than it should under the circumstances, as if they were sort of carrying the weight of all the truly bad things produced around here with them.
On the other hand, the English have been using "sorry" instead of "excuse me" for a long time now. Maybe we over here picked it up from watching all those BBC productions on PBS. I don't know. But theirs is a supercilious and slightly irritated sorry, and everybody knows when the Brits say "sorry" in that way they don't mean they're really sorry. The British simply aren't sorry as a general rule. There's no hint in their long history as a nation and a people of anyone being culturally or nationally apologetic. Britons have never, as far as I know, been sorry for a single thing they've ever done, so we know automatically that "sorry" stands in for "excuse me" or even "get out of my way."
Likewise the French, who might say "pardon" when they jostle or bump you, aren't really asking to be pardoned for anything. Frenchmen are no more sorry for anything they've done than the British are. They may regret having been beaten in a war or two along the way (the British don't even regret that), and they may feel sorry for themselves for having to live so close to the British and the Germans and having to put up with Americans, but they're not the least bit sorry. Not in any sort of national hang-your-head sense, the way the Japanese are capable of being. That kind of regret just isn't in the DNA of the northern European peoples. That's why when the Allies tried to force the Germans into being really sorry after World War One the result was an equal and opposite reaction, leading to, well, you know to what.
Maybe also we in this country, and even more so in this politically liberal part of the country, are especially aware and uncomfortable about how and why we got here, and are sorry for it, even though we may have profited from it. We're reminded that we should be sorry for our horrible treatment of the Native Americans, a treatment which, we must nevertheless acknowledge, paved the way for our conquest of the continent. We're also reminded that we should be sorry for the enslavement of Africans, and the appropriation of the West from the Mexicans. And then there's the exploitation of immigrant labor, the rape of the land, our contribution to global warming, and the list goes on. These are things that we, as a nation, must acknowledge were bad at the time, but which we must also admit seemed okay at the time. We sit, like all nation-states, atop a pile of bad deeds that forged our history and led us to the present for better or worse.
You can see why the more insensitive among us admire a guy like Donald Trump, who absolutely never apologizes for anything he does, no matter how shitty it might be. And you can see why the more socially and politically mature among us walk around feeling a little guilty much of the time.
Maybe that's why the woman with the botox face and the jelly lips who bumps me with her shopping cart in the overpriced but ecologically responsible supermarket has to say, "Oh! Sorry. Sorry. Sorry." Sorry.