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Why English people say sorry so often

It turns out saying 'sorry' all the time might not just be a verbal tick, but a clever strategy for getting what you want

Siobhan Fenton
Saturday 27 February 2016 16:22 GMT
A nationalistic man shows his support for Britain at the Tour de France
A nationalistic man shows his support for Britain at the Tour de France (Getty)

The British pride themselves on their polite manners, from maintaining a stiff upper lip to obeying precise social etiquette for every occasion. And if there is one word which trips off the English tongue more than most languages and cultures, it is the word ‘sorry’. ‘Sorry’ can be used almost as a verbal tick as people apologise for anything ranging from the mundane to extraordinary, regardless of whether they are truly apologetic or not.

Indeed, recent data from YouGov found that for every 10 times American research subjects use the word, British research subjects say it 15 times.

But where does this obsession with saying ‘Sorry’ stem from?

One theory is that it is a habit inherited from Anglo-Saxon ancestors. In Old English, sarig denoted distress, grief or sorrow, i.e. more than being merely apologetic. It is therefore possible that people are using the word in the traditional, wider sense to express empathy or acknowledgement of any situations which are deemed to be unideal.

Another reason may be psychological. Harvard researchers have found evidence that saying ‘sorry’ to someone is the best way to get them on your side and to persuade them to do what you want.

As part of a sociological experiment, researchers asked an actor to approach strangers on a rainy day and ask them if he could borrow their mobile phone to make a call. When he approached and asked the favour outright, he was successful in 9 per cent of cases. However, when he prefaced his request with ‘Sorry about the rain’ he succeeded in 47 per cent of cases.

So saying sorry might not just be good manners, but the best strategy to get what you want.

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