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Saturday, June 12, 2004

Why We Are Sorry

Is this anecdotial fact urban legend or not? During World War II, German soldiers on the Easter Front received a phrasebook including 3,000 Russian words and phrases, and “Sorry” was not one of them.

Saying sorry can mean you show respect for the other person’s status. (There is a nice old caricature of two people bowing so deeply in front of each other they nearly touch the floor – the caricature is titled “two people meeting, both thinking the other to be of higher status”).

Sometimes, a lack of sorryness is bad. But sometimes, too much sorryness can be worse.

You know there are languages which don’t have the word “sorry"? A social network might be too tight and interdependent for anybody to put shame on individuals. Every mistake will hurt the group as whole, badly, and everybody knows.

Words like “sorry”, “thanks”, and “please” strengthen social relationships – the linguist calls this interpersonal, as opposed to textual or experimental. These words do not carry information on their own but are a way of saying “we depend on each other”. They also show this dependency is in need of being pointed out, and strengthened.

The word “sorry” is also a good indicator something went wrong. A German proverb says “if you defend yourself, you are also accusing yourself”.

I’m curious. Googling “Sorry”, I find people excuse themselves because:

That’s a lot of sorryness online. Which means quite a lot of things go wrong.

When did you say “sorry” the last time? Think back – and ask yourself if maybe instead of saying you’re sorry, you could focus on fixing the problem causing all the sorryness. Because being sorry doesn’t mean you will get away with it. Not next time. Not if people around you depend on you.

And if that sounded like a lecture, then I’m truly – ah, you know what I mean.


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