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What your English teacher never told you - Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Aprile 2015
È il titolo di una famosa canzone di Elton John, ed è davvero strano: perché gli inglesi non trovano assolutamente difficile dire sorry, anzi... lo dicono sempre, anche quando non hanno fatto nulla di male. Ecco tutti i casi in cui bisogna dire sorry per evitare figuracce!

di Rachel Roberts

Rachel Roberts
Rachel Roberts

Elton John once had a hit with the song “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” It is perhaps a strange title for a British singer, because British people don’t find it hard to say sorry at all.
Students of English usually learn that “sorry” is the correct expression to use when we want to apologize. Good teachers will even point out that Brits frequently use an interrogative “sorry?”’ instead of “pardon?” when they haven’t heard what someone has said.
Very few teachers, however, emphasize enough just how important the word sorry is. And yet, according to a recent survey of 1,100 people, the average Brit will say sorry a staggering 1.9 million times in his or her lifetime.


One textbook for foreign people learning English has a section on how to use “sorry.” Next to a set of illustrations of Brits saying sorry in various situations – “Sorry, can I say something?” “Sorry, you’ve given me the wrong change” - the book explains, “When people say “sorry” in English, they are not always apologizing.”
One important thing to understand is that although they are very affectionate and tactile with close friends and family members, Brits do not usually enjoy physical contact with strangers. In fact they are extremely skilled at avoiding it. They will sit precariously with one buttock on a bus seat, rather than touch the stranger sitting next to them. They are particularly dextrous with umbrellas and, when two umbrella-carrying people pass each other in a narrow space, they will make a great show of holding their umbrellas to one side so as not to hurt each other.


I can remember the first time I visited an Italian market on a rainy Saturday and nearly lost an eye on several occasions. Absolutely no one was trying to avoid hitting other passers-by with their umbrella. When one lady actually pulled out some of my hair with her umbrella, she turned round, looked at me angrily and said, “I didn’t mean to do it.”


On another occasion I was waiting in a long queue to board an aeroplane at an Italian airport. It was very hot and the woman in front of me kept playing with her long sweaty hair. At one point she flicked it so hard it hit me in the eye. I was deeply shocked! As a British person it would be almost impossible for me to make this kind of mistake. I would be far too conscious of the closeness between myself and the person standing behind me. If by terrible misfortune, I actually flicked my hair into someone’s eye, I would be mortified and would apologize profoundly for the unpleasant physical contact. Seeing my horrified expression the woman in the airport was offended. “What do you want?” she asked me, “I didn’t do it on purpose!”


Under no circumstances is “I didn’t do it on purpose,” “I didn’t mean to do it” or “it wasn’t my fault’” a suitable substitute for ‘sorry’ in a British context. For us, saying sorry isn’t just about being polite. It is a deeply ingrained rule; a reflex reaction that British people expect everyone to have. In other words, if you travel to the UK and don’t say sorry at the right moment, then people will assume you are extremely rude!


It’s not surprising, then, that British people will often say sorry for something that is not their fault, for example if someone else bumps into them, or if someone asks them for a light and they don’t smoke. They will often apologize reflexively to inanimate objects such as doors and table legs and even to empty rooms when the person they have been looking for is not there!


If you think you might have trouble saying “sorry” at the right moment in the UK, then here are 10 situations that will usually make a British person say sorry:

• Walking into someone
• Being walked into
•Not hearing what someone has said
•Answering a mobile phone in someone else’s presence
Spilling your pint on someone
• When someone spills their pint on you.
• Paying for a packet of chewing gum with a banknote.
• Paying for something in coins
• When the shop assistant drops your change.
• Not having a cigarette lighter or pen on your person.

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