Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sorry, I'm British!

Photo: Les Powell
Wheeling my trolley around Tesco in England a few weeks ago, I was struck by the number of times people said sorry to me as they bumped in to me in some form or another. Shop workers careered around the store with huge trolleys to stock shelves, intent on getting the job done rather than giving customers right of way and the room to actually get their shopping done. Much as happens in my local Albert Heijn. The difference in England is that those behind the trolleys smile and say sorry as they push their way through. 

"Oh, how polite," I thought. However, after half a dozen incidents from shop workers and customers alike it started to get a little old. Could so many people really mean that they were sorry for pushing their way through or bumping in to me? Not likely. It's a stop word. It's a way of making it all seem a little more polite than it actually is. It's false politeness.

As English people, it is a habit and quite normal to say sorry if we bump into each other - even if it's not our fault. We just say sorry. It slips out without even realising it. It's a well known phenomena. Kate Fox wrote about it in her great book, "Watching the English". Michael Harling refers to the trend in his book about living in England, "Postcards from Across the Pond". We're famous for it. 

But during my last trip back to England, I realised with a jolt - it doesn't make it right. The Dutch barge their way through but don't apologise for it. The English push through whilst apologising. False politeness? An example of Dutch directness? It's definitely a baffling cultural difference!

No comments:

Post a Comment