Famous British apologist Hugh Grant
Famous British apologist Hugh Grant

Sorry seems to be the hardest word… everywhere except the UK.

British people are infamous for their proclivity for apologies and a YouGov poll of more than 1,600 people showed that there are 15 British apologies for every 10 American just for being 5 minutes late to a meeting.

But where does this habit come from?

It has to do with the relationship British people have with the word itself, argues social anthropologist Edwin Battistella and reported by the BBC.

Giving superfluous apologies makes you more approachable, trustworthy and therefore more likely to get what you want, and Battistella claims that just because British people use the word 'sorry' to express empathy doesn't necessarily mean they are more remorseful.

We can use it to express empathy – so I might say ‘sorry about the rain.’ Other researchers have talked about the use of ‘sorry’ to communicate across social classes, where you’re sort of apologising for your privilege.

It also has to do with social markers: British society is dictated by 'negative politeness', which is the idea that social interactions are careful and respectful of boundaries.

America on the other hand operates on a 'positive politeness', which emphasises closeness and relationships above boundaries.

Reddit users had some ideas about the British 'sorry' pathology:

The British 'sorry' is not an admission of guilt. It's simply an acknowledgement of an awkward situation.

Another user said that saying 'sorry' was not even an apology:

It's an acknowledgement of mutual inconvenience, not an apology - the set response is 'sorry' back.

However the following sums up British politeness in a nutshell:

It's sort of like a reflex. I could walk into a street lamp and say sorry to it

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