I’m sorry

Posted by Doc
Aug 02 2009

I’m all in favor of saying “I’m sorry.” Not necessarily as an admission of fault or wrongdoing, of course. But because sometimes it’s the right thing to say.

“I had a really rotten day.” “I’m sorry.”

And then there are times that it’s just not the appropriate thing to say.

Mary and Bill were riding down in the elevator, on their way out to the store. They were chatting as usual, talking about this and that.

The elevator reached the ground floor. When the door opened, there was another couple standing right in front of the door, effectively blocking the way.

As Bill and Mary started to exit the elevator, Mary turned sideways to edge out, and said “I’m sorry.”

Bill’s inclination had been to say “excuse me” until Mary spoke up, and then he was stumped into silence.

What did Mary have to be sorry about? There was no fault, and nothing to be sympathetic to. Rather, the people standing in front of the elevator should have said “I’m sorry” or at least “excuse me” and moved aside.

So why would Mary say “I’m sorry”?

My thought is that Mary has self-image issues. She behaves as though she somehow believes that other people are worth more than she is or more important than she is. I could be wrong, but I’ve seen this kind of behavior enough times to have a clue.

While I believe strongly in treating people with respect, I don’t believe in behaving with automatic subservience or submission.

You’ve gotta earn those, and you’d better have a BIG hammer!

10 Responses

  1. David Ron says:

    Maybe I have the same social disorder, but I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “I’m sorry” when getting off of the elevator. Just because society has an etiquette surrounding elevator travel doesn’t mean that everybody in that society understands that etiquette. Let’s separate what those people did to Mary and what Mary was doing to those people. Certainly they had something to say, “I’m sorry” over. But, perhaps Mary is sorry for interrupting a conversation between the people blocking the elevator, or sorry for having to invade the personal space of those people to get through them.

    “Pardon me”, “Excuse me”, and “I’m sorry (for interrupting/distracting you)” are really very similar statements, and making a distinction between them as a method to psycho analyze somebody might be a little excessive.

    • Doc says:

      Obviously, I disagree.

      Mary having to say I’m sorry for “having to invade the personal space of those people” is part of the problem. First, that they were blocking the way is not her problem. I admit to finding that annoying in general – when waiting for an elevator, it’s not unreasonable to expect people to be exiting when the doors open, and therefore reasonable to leave some space for them.

      Then that she should feel that exiting the elevator – her only choice – is somehow something to apologize for. You’re saying that “pardon me” and “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are equivalents. I suspect that I didn’t make my example well, if that’s the case. I can’t imagine saying “I’m sorry” under the circumstances I described. “Excuse me” or “pardon me”, yes. But “I’m sorry”? No.

      Clearly, we have differing views of these things. I respect your views, even while disagreeing.

      • Rob Myers says:

        I understand the point you are making about subservience and self-image issues, but were I to witness this event, I would assume Mary is just using “Sorry…” as a substitute for “Excuse me” or clearing her throat. Since Mary may have proceeded to edge herself out, “sorry” was her way of being polite in the face of rudeness or ignorance.

        Sorry. Excuse me. Pardon me. All these terms, if you parse them, mean about the same thing. Some may hear subservience, others hear common social manners.

        You and Bill seem to be over-analyzing Mary, and over-thinking such interactions. If you think people are acting subservient to you when they casually apologize, I’d suggest you reconsider. Maybe they’re just trying to be nice?

      • Doc says:

        Do you equate “I’m sorry”, “sorry”, “excuse me”, “pardon me”? I don’t. There’s no question that this could very well be my bias at play. The words/phrases do not mean the same thing to me. Especially in circumstances like these.

        “Excuse me” in this case, is active – sounds like “I want to get through, would you please move.” “Pardon me” is the same – active, even preemptive.

        “I’m sorry” is apologetic, not active/preemptive, in my experience in the US. I can’t speak for other countries.

        I’m happy to agree to disagree on this. I think we might both (all) be right.

  2. I’m siding with you on this one Doc. Forget the pleasentries, which I agree with you also, but logically, they occupants need to exit first before new occupants enter. Common sense.

    Good post.

  3. Twitter Comment

    Steven List: I’m sorry [link to post] #postrank #programming

    Posted using Chat Catcher

  4. Frank Carver says:

    There is obviously a cultural expectation backdrop to this as well as the practical and psychological aspects you mention.

    The pre-emptive “sorry” is a very common British technique, with its own expectations. In this case the pattern might go something like this:

    Mary waits a beat to see if blocker moves of his/her own volition. No such luck.

    Mary makes a working assumption that the reason for the block is that the blocker is unaware of her presence.

    Mary moves forward into personal space of oblivious blocker. Normally this would be an unusual and threatening thing to do.


    Blocker notices personal space incursion but is rendered socially unable to complain by the pre-emptive sorry. Telling someone off for something they have already apologised for makes you look an idiot.

    Blocker is now both aware of Mary and needs to resolve the personal space incursion. There is only one option – to step out of the way.

    The simple pre-emptive sorry has acted to defuse any potential escalation of stubborn-ness and quickly achieved the goals of all participants. The use of “sorry” is a kind of verbal Judo to place the blocker at a social disadvantage. This is so strong that the step back will often be accompanied by something like “no, I’m sorry” in an attempt to redress the balance.

    Anything which sounds more like an instruction, even “excuse me” is less likely to have this effect, and risks a kind of “why should I?” response. This is one of the many ways in which American habits often seem brash and insensitive to British ears.

    As an exercise, compare this to an equivalent situation with two drivers facing each other in a single track road. Logically one needs to back up, but the lack of verbal communication often enough leads to a stereotypical and pointless standoff. A little bit of “sorry” would go a long way to defusing the whole problem and letting both parties get on with their lives.

  5. Chris Matts says:

    Sorry Steve, I’m with Frank on this one.

    “Sorry”. is the equivalent of a physical body charge, and normally accompanied by one in London*. Its probably originated on the London Underground which is about as physical as you can get when it comes to politeness. A mixture of bulldozer commuters with a target in mind and dozy tourists standing in the door oblivious to the harm about to befall them. A barely audible “sorry” is the excuse to body check some map gazer out of the way. Be sure of this, the combination of “etiquette lesson” and physical pain teaches ’em fast. “Londoners” hug the walls on the tube. Only foolish newcomers stand in the way of progressing hordes.

    If you hear someone say “sorry” behind you, you jump because you are about to get hurt if you do not get out of the way fast.

    There was a misunderstood song some years ago. “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” People misinterpreted it to mean something mushy. It referred to the fact that sorry was the word that preceded the most inflicted pain. 😉 Sorry has tattoos and carries a baseball bat ( even in London where we only play soccer )

    Even though “Sorry” is so hard, it rarely travels alone. After inflicting a painful lesson, the “pupil” gets to hear one of sorry’s “mates” such as “halfwit”, “moron”, “idiot” in many different languages and dialects ( I love the diversity of London ).

    * ( Less physical individuals use their stilleto heels or pointy umbrellas to similar effect. ).

    • Doc says:

      Intriguing! Okay – so there’s a difference between the US and UK. In my example, it was in the US. In my experience, “I’m sorry” is not usually meant as “GTF out of my way!” accompanied by a body check. And in my example, the “I’m sorry” was deferential, which seemed inappropriate to me.

      And it was a real experience, with a real person and me, and I can assure you that it was not “please move out of my way” but rather “I’m sorry I’m forcing you to move so that I can exit the elevator.”

  6. Kate says:

    Here in Canada I suppose it is between the two. It is short for “I am sorry that I have to push past you now.” The alternatives might include standing silently in the elevator until you are noticed, saying something pushy like “excuse me” which is a request for them to move away, talking loudly to your companion so you are noticed, etc. If you choose to take physical action like moving into someone’s space, even someone who shouldn’t have their space there, why not apologize? Their initial rudeness doesn’t let you be as rude as you want without consequence, after all.

    There is a joke that goes “what does a Canadian say if you step on their foot?” “Sorry.” It’s true, but believe me, we do have some very aggressive “sorry”s here too.

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