It’s one of the great head-scratching mysteries about Canada, that both Canadians and visiting foreigners raise with troubling frequency: why do Canadians use the word ‘sorry’ so often in the course of their day-to-day lives?
I’m a Torontonian and can tell you it’s true: Canadians have a conditioned reflex to apologize for even the smallest and most insignificant infractions—most of which barely count as violations and are thus unworthy of an apology.
This tendency to sorry-monger for virtually anything, occurs in all sorts of situations: from barely getting into a person’s physical space, to asking for the smallest favour or assistance—even if it’s from someone who’s job it is to help you, to airing a complaint, to catching oneself making tiny errors in judgement or perception in the course of a conversation. No misstep is small enough to escape sorry-fication.
Contrast this with the more brusque and unapologetic people in other countries for whom such niceties as apologizing for normal behaviour is a luxury gone too far. When someone lightly bumps my shoulder in the Toronto subway as the train suddenly lurches and offers their regretful “sorry,” I chuckle to myself and think of the unapologetic mass rush of people cramming onto Tokyo subway trains that is stuff of real nightmares. Or the uncaring elbows in the head I often suffered in the most crowded places in Cairo. Or having an onion at a vegetable market in Eastern Europe yanked out of my hand by someone hell-bent on taking that same piece of produce.
I’ve written about an American anthropologist named Edward T. Hall, who penned books about the differences in such unconscious, or intangible, cultural behaviours around the world. He used the term “hidden culture” to describe the non-verbal actions and habits-of-thought that operate below human awareness, and which vary between cultural groupings. They include things like perception of space, awareness of time, implicit and explicit communication habits, rhythms and body movements, and other types of signalling.
My answer to the question of why Canadians use the word “sorry” so much is inspired by Hall’s lens of hidden culture, which I now apply to my own countryfolk. As with most things, there is no single cause. It is most likely a combination of several factors working together, and which are concealed from obvious view. Here are a few:
Self-consciousness is a hallmark of Canadian cultural psychology that makes us predisposed to being ‘sorry.’
Our relative lack of cultural identity means we don’t have a deep or confident sense of who, or what, we are. The “sorry” is a kind of tick reflecting the resulting self-consciousness, self-doubt, and awkwardness that resides in us. It’s also the source of Canadian passive-aggression, for which we are famous amongst ourselves.
Protestant Christian guilt, apology (“sorry”), and repentance are early foundations of Anglophone Canadian culture.
I suspect the propensity to say sorry is an old one, stemming from Protestant moralism, and has endured as a more watered-down cultural reflex. That need to demonstrate good behaviour also manifests in our very famous Canadian politeness, which also contributes to the sorry impulse. Polite people go out of their way to apologize, even if they may not need to. Canadian virtue signalling, whether expressed by individuals or the collective (the Trudeau government’s evangelical do-good policies, for example), also has its roots in this constant need for public penitence, ie: a sort of Godless Protestantism.
Canada is a nation of rules, regulations, and strict boundaries between things, which makes Canadians culturally more “transgression-minded.”
We’re more predisposed to the ‘sorry’ also because our existence is so ordered, linear, controlled, and rational. When we feel we are veering from the rules—that perfectionism—even so slightly as a hiccup, we reach for the apology that smooths everything over.
Canadians enjoy the luxury of physical space, which makes us extremely susceptible to saying “sorry” when getting too close.
You may notice that many, perhaps even most, Canadian ‘sorrys’ occur around accidental or happenstance transgressions of spatial boundaries. Take, for example that awkward moment when two people walking down the sidewalk toward each other shift sideways to get out of each other’s way, but end up mirroring each others’ movements, and thus block each other momentarily until they pass. In Canada, that’s a couple of sorrys you can take to the bank.
The Canadian spatial violation threshold is exceedingly low. We occupy the second largest country in the world, after Russia. Even though most Canadians live in the southernmost tier of the country, our landscape remains large and vast—even in the south. There is a large amount of space per person. This great expanse is why Old World Europeans settled here to begin with, and part of the reason why people still immigrate to Canada from other more crowded parts of the world.
Simply put: Canadians enjoy the luxury of space. We’re conditioned to that. And so the sorrys pour forth when Canadians find they have drifted too near to one another.
In countries and cultures where population density is exceedingly high, such as in big and densely crowded cities in Asia and Africa, people have no such spatial sensitivities. They have adapted to their circumstances by accepting physical boundaries that are a great deal less than ours.
The relative affluence, comfort and safety of Canadian life, translates into an exceptionally low tolerance for adversity and inconvenience. “Sorry” becomes a diplomatic tool.
Canadians live in a safe-haven by global standards. Theirs is an affluent, comfortable, contented, and even complacent society. Most Canadians are not exposed to the types and degrees of challenge and adversity that many people living in less fortunate parts of the world regularly face. Put another way: we’re more than a bit soft.
That softness means our threshold for adversity and inconvenience is low. In our own minds this gives us more to be sorry for. We tend to project that when we say “sorry” in advance for the slightest infringements upon another’s time and energy—such as when approaching a stranger for directions or information. “Sorry” is a diplomatic device when dealing with others.
One young woman in her late teens accidentally tapped my foot while walking past me as I was sitting on the bus. She was so horrified by what she had done that she stopped in her tracks and proceeded to apologize profusely and repetitively as if she had committed a deep moral outrage that had done me great harm. Our new culture of fragility amplified the number and intensity of her sorrys.
I did what I suggest others do in such situations, when a sorry, especially a Canadian “sorry”, is both overwrought and unnecessary—as courteous as it may be:
I smiled and replied back in a gentle but firm tone, “Don’t be.”