And yes, I am Canadian. That’s why the businessman and I both expressed the classic Canadian apology yesterday when we bumped into each other on the busy sidewalk in downtown Victoria. It was an expression of goodwill, a courtesy. It was our way of signalling each other that there was no ill feeling and neither of us lost any honor by doing so. All was good in our little speck of the universe.
Many years ago I met this amazing storyteller from Kentucky. She was a qualified nurse-midwife, working tirelessly in the remote hills of Kentucky and instructing at their University of Kentucky program. She was visiting a friend’s cottage in Ontario the same time I was. One of the many fascinating stories she narrated reminded me of the overuse of the word ‘sorry’ in Canada. Folks in Kentucky could have a whole conversation using one word: ‘well’. She explained that it was all about the situation, the inflection, the tone, the facial expression and body language used when expressing the word that had all these different meanings. We spent about ten minutes practicing – it was so much fun!
“Well…” (followed by a sigh)
“Well.” (followed by nodding the head)
The Canadian use of the word ‘sorry’ is similar, having different meanings, depending on when it is used and the tone and inflections with which it is said. Ian and Will Ferguson went as far as to theorize in their book ‘How to be a Canadian (Even If You Already Are One)’ that there are twelve Canadian ‘sorries’. I don’t think it matters how many types there are or are not. It is a habit. It is part of the Canadian identity.
‘Sorry’ is not always an apology. It does not mean we are insecure. It is a politeness strategy, a courtesy – a way to have smooth, norm-abiding, harmonious interactions. And what’s wrong with that?
Interestingly, there has been a drawback to the Canadian affectionate use of the word ‘sorry’. It has contributed its share of mayhem to our legal system. Traditionally lawyers relied on establishing guilt in the courts based on whoever apologized at the time of the incident. But what happens when both parties express regret? So who is really at fault? The lawmakers in Ontario finally cleared it up and passed the Apology Act in 2009. It states that an apology of any kind ‘means an expression of sympathy or regret’ and it is not ‘an admission of fault or liability in connection with the matter to which the words or actions relate.’ Only in Canada you say, eh?
I have read many articles over the years, suggesting that women tend to use the word ‘sorry’ more than men. In my experience, I would agree. I have a friend who is using a most novel approach to tame this perceived Canadian mannerism.
She plans to replace the “I’m sorry” with a “Thank you” statement wherever it is appropriate … and she remembers to do so. So, instead of arriving at the restaurant and blurting out, “Sorry for being late” to her friends, she’ll turn it around and say, “Thank you for waiting”.
I love it!
Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.
William Arthurs Ward