Sorry — can we talk about why Canadians apologize so much?

Writer Emily Keeler thinks the Canadian Sorry says a whole lot more than the garden variety kind. She muses (and rails) on why Canadians say the word so quickly and so often.
That feeling when a truck nearly squashed you and you instinctively yelled: "Sorry!" (Paul Krueger/Flickr CC)

Writer Emily Keeler thinks the Canadian Sorry says a whole lot more than the garden variety apology. She muses (and rails) on why Canadians apologise so quickly and so often — and what it says about our blurry national identity.

This essay was originally recorded for CBC Radio's Out in the Open as part of an entire episode about the true worth of an apology.


Emily Keeler is sorry for the Canadian apology. (Daniel Alexander)

My favourite example of a Canadian apology is when you're out for brunch, or at a restaurant, and you really need some ketchup.

So you say to the waiter — whose job it is to help you get the things you need to enjoy your meal — "Oh, sorry! Um, sorry, hi! Is it okay if … could I have some ketchup, please? Oh, thanks so much, sorry!" 

It just makes no sense. You could just say: "Excuse me? Do you have any ketchup?"

Also: This summer when I was riding my bike to work, I almost got hit by a truck.

I was in the bike lane and I needed to pass another cyclist. I inched over into the car lane and I had already done a shoulder check, but as soon as I got there, I could feel that feeling of someone about to come dangerously close to decimating my personal space.

It was a big truck! I could hear him revving up to make the light. He saw me probably just in time.

I could literally feel the whoosh of air as the truck was going by. He rolled down his window — probably to yell something like, "Sorry! I didn't see you!" — but, before he even had the chance I was already screaming, "SORRY!" at the top of my lungs.

I screamed "sorry" even though I was incredibly angry.

If we'd been pretty much anywhere else on the planet, it probably would not have been an exchange I could politely recount in an essay. So what gives? 

Inherited awkwardness?

There are few going theories as to why Canadians apologize so quickly and so often.

One is that we inherited a certain innate awkwardness as a byproduct of British settlement. But, I think there's a bit more at play.

British identity — for better, worse and Brexit​ — is fixed. What it means to be Canadian, on the other hand, is not.

Hey, if you bump into me … well, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be in the way of you going about your life.- Emily Keeler

Shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected he told The New York Times as much: "There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada," he said.

And it's this precise lack of central clarity that makes ours a pretty great culture, where it's mostly possible to have a general attitude of "live and let live" and "hey, if you bump into me … well, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be in the way of you going about your life." 

Canadian identity has this looseness to it.

One thing that does seem evidently clear to most of us, though, is that being Canadian means we are not Americans.

For instance, our neighbours to the south just elected a leader for whom the word "sorry" may well not even exist.

Calgary Transit engaging in some typical Canadian 'live and let live' behaviour. (Bernard Spragg)

A national reflex?

In the U.S., issuing an apology is often framed as an admission of inadequacy, weakness or guilt. On the other hand, here we say "sorry" so often that the province of Ontario had to make a law to literally limit the liabilities of chronic apologizers.

The Apology Act was introduced in 2009 as a measure to give lawyers a fair chance defending clients who were never guilty but apologized to the aggrieved all the same.

Here in Canada, saying 'sorry' is a nicety that feels a little bit like a joke so worn out, all that remains is the punch line.- Emily Keeler

Saying sorry as a reflex renders it an essentially meaningless courtesy.

Here in Canada, saying "sorry" is a nicety that feels a little bit like a joke so worn out, all that remains is the punch line.

We say it to mean: "I'm so sorry for the fact of human frailty. I'm very sorry about human idiocy. I'm sorry for the basic failures of our species and the ridiculous unlikelihood of us, in all of our stupidity and avarice, to continue to even exist."

It's hardly a statement of personal accountability.

Our casual sorries may be keeping us "pretty chill" about all kinds of things, says Keeler, like having a foreign queen. Here she is in a massive portrait for a pub in downtown Winnipeg. (Tanner Grywinski/CBC)

A quick way to dodge conflict?

Sometimes we say "sorry" and mean something more like: "I'm especially sorry to encounter so much human idiocy in you, a person who I am not actually inclined to aggravate right now."

That's certainly how I meant it when that yabbo in the truck nearly killed me this summer.

But, instead of reaching for more of a colourful word, I screamed "sorry" in the face of a harried brush with death. Like a good Canadian.

Sometimes we say 'sorry' and mean something more like: 'I'm especially sorry to encounter so much human idiocy in you, a person who I am not actually inclined to aggravate right now.'- Emily Keeler

You know what killing 'em with kindness is really good for? Managing up. Being quick to apologize and to minimize conflict is a strategy best employed by people working to make their own situation as pleasant as possible, even when they're at the bottom of the hierarchical order.

That's typically why women say "sorry" more often than men. And it's how we as a nation preserve diplomatic relationships, while also managing to feel pretty chill about how we literally have a foreign queen.

Speaking of which, Your Majesty, if you're listening, allow me please to say that I'm sorry.

I'm sorry for how many times I've said "sorry." (Sorry.)

I understand that the profuse apologies I've uttered in order to avoid a minor bit of conflict are likely way more annoying than that minor bit of conflict would have been.

In fact, sorry, but I'm just gonna come out and say it: I'm sorry for the Canadian apology. I'm sorry.

(Sorry.)

In her essay, Emily Keeler apologizes for the “Canadian sorry” 5:43

Emily M. Keeler is the Vice President of PEN Canada and the series editor for Exploded Views, a punchy line of short nonfiction books, from Coach House Books. 

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