I’m sorry, I’m British

The second round of the Yeah Write Super Challenge occurred a couple of weeks ago.  I was given 48 hours to write a persuasive essay about what makes a good apology.

The results were released a few days ago. Unfortunately I was defeated this time and didn’t make it through to the final round. The feedback from the judges was, however, really positive and I think that my biggest downfall was that I didn’t spend enough time answering the question.

Between you and me, I have to confess that the reason for this was that I spent quite a lot of my allotted 48  hours drinking with my friends rather than adding more substance to my essay and I’m okay with that; the cocktails were bloody awesome.

My entry is below. For those who are interested, the feedback follows.

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I am British. Apologising is our thing. It has been bred into us for generations, we are relentlessly and defiantly apologetic.

If you inadvertently bump into a British person; they will say sorry for being in your way. In fact, if a British person bumps into anything, they will apologise; person, small dog, lamppost, door frame. They don’t discriminate, the “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry” will be blurted out regardless.

If you serve a British person a margarita when they asked for a mojito they will say “My bad, I should have been clearer when I ordered” and then they will drink the margarita, even if they hate the stuff.

If you call a British person by the wrong name, they will apologise for not being called the name that you used, as this would have saved you from the embarrassment of being incorrect. My name is Jo and I once apologised when, due to a terrible administrative error, my name was recorded as Ho.

We just can’t help ourselves; apologising comes as naturally as obsessing about the weather. In fact, what we really like to do is to apologise for our weather. Upon arrival at any British airport there should be a big sign that says “Welcome to the UK. It’s probably raining; we’re terribly sorry about that.”

This is all well and good but it could be argued that the volume of ‘sorrys’ uttered in the British Isles is so excessive that the sentiment behind the word has become diluted.

Research by the New York Bakery Co. in 2011 found that the average Brit says sorry at least eight times a day. This equates to nearly 3,000 times a year.

Now I don’t claim to be the most divine being in the world, but in my 39 years of life, I’m pretty sure that I’ve not managed to make 117,000 apology justifying mistakes.

So, have my ‘sorrys’ lost perspective? Are they ‘good’ apologies or is saying sorry just a habit?

In the UK, we use the word ‘sorry’ in the same way that other countries would say ‘Excuse me’. For example, if I’m in a bar and I’m hunting around for chairs (What? I’m old now, I like to sit down on a night out. Don’t judge me) and I spy what looks like an empty seat that has the potential to be relocated for my friends and I to sit on, I might say “Sorry, is this seat taken?” instead of “Excuse me, is this seat taken?”.

In this situation, my ‘sorry’ is a token gesture to apologise for my interruption. Which is nonsense because I’m not usually sorry to disturb these chair hoggers at all. I’m generally trying to understand why said chair hoggers are sitting at a table set for eight when there is only three of them and I’m judging them for sitting down when they can’t be more than about 21 years old.

To be honest, I’m also thinking that they should be making the most of the days when they can stand up all night. Soon they’ll be nearing 40 and the only way they’ll be able to stand up all night is if they have a nap before they go out, start the night with a Red Bull and wear flat comfortable shoes. But I can’t say this, so instead, I smile politely and say “Sorry, is this seat taken?”.

On reflection, I can see that this is not a good apology. I’m apologising for no reason with completely false sentiment; I’m not really sorry, I just want to plonk my weary body down in a chair.

So, how do experts define a good apology? According to Guy Winch from Psychology Today in an article titled ‘The five ingredients of an effective apology’ “…for apologies to be effective, they have to be focused on the other person’s needs and feelings, not your own.”

He goes on to say “…so many of our efforts [to apologise] are ineffective because we’re not trying to make the other person feel better, we’re trying to make ourselves feel better.”

Yesterday, I accidentally dropped my husband’s iPhone and smashed the corner of the screen. I said sorry lots of times, pulled my cutest sad face and fluttered my eyelashes at him…. and then, focussing very much on his needs and feelings, I bought him a bottle of Jack Daniels.

He was delighted with this method of apology. In fact, he was torn between two different bottles of bourbon in the shop and I’m quite certain that he’s trying to get me to smash the opposite corner of the phone screen so I’ll buy him the other bottle.

I’m pretty sure that guilt induced gift purchases is not the ingredient of an effective apology that Guy Winch had in mind. It is very clear to me that despite my British heritage causing my overwhelming desire to incessantly apologise, I am no good at it.

For that, I am truly sorry.

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What the judges really liked about I’m Sorry I’m British:

The essay was charming and engaging. Voice is clear and approachable, and the anecdotes are well-told and relatable.

I liked the way you injected humour into this essay, drawing the reader in with a casual and easy voice. Contextualising your perspective as British was a nice way to establish early that apologies are a regular and frequent part of your interactions with the world. You did a good job of referencing an outside source with regard to what makes a good apology.

Where the judges found room for improvement:

The essay neatly dodged the question, including only a sort of throwaway paragraph about the elements of a real apology which it then immediately diverted into a different anecdote. While elements of persuasion and anecdote were balanced, it would have been nice if the reader had used the spare 150 words or so to explore the thesis set up late in the game.

Though you went into some depth on how frequently the British apologize in daily life, the essay didn’t tackle the question what makes a good apology until the last third. When the essay did deal with the question, it was done well, with supporting information and a reflection on your application of advice.

To queue, or not to queue, that is the question:

st-georges-cross0On St George’s Day earlier this week, I was reflecting on all things English and picking out some of my favourite things; Pimms, bonfire night, bacon butties and Victoria sponge cakes are naturally pretty high up my list but I have decided that my two favourite things about being English are English manners and English language.

I love the intrinsic politeness of being English. We are a nation of sorry-ists. We apologise for things that aren’t our fault “Oh, I’m terribly sorry that my feet are on the floor in front of me. I can see that you were left with no alternative but to stand on them. No, no, it’s completely my fault, I just should have put them somewhere else, my apologies. Are you okay?”

It’s like queuing. I don’t actually like standing in a supermarket queue wondering why the man in front of me is only buying a carrot and a packet of digestives (This was an actual purchase that I witnessed recently. My conclusion being that his biscuit tin needed replenishing and he owns a rabbit). But I do love the fairness and the courteousness of it. In England we’re generally very “After you, you were here first” about things. Abroad, it’s every man for himself; like spinsters at a wedding bouquet throwing. Terrifying.

I particularly love the sudden random camaraderie that happens when someone tries to queue jump. People with absolutely nothing in common, apart from a need to catch a bus, immediately turn into ‘defenders of the order’ and will do everything they can to prevent someone illegally entering the line. It is a proven fact that you will move closer to a man with a comb over and a dirty mac who has been blatantly looking at your tits for the past 14 minutes rather than create a chink of space for an interloper. That’s the mighty power of the queue.

If I were not English, it would sadden me greatly. Not only would I not appreciate the civilised nature of a queue, I also would not know and love some of the great English words like jammy, scrummy, shirty, faff, brolly, strop, twit, cross, welly, yonks and most importantly, bollocks. I love those words. My life would be empty without them. I wouldn’t want to replace them with American words. I don’t want bangs instead of a fringe, I will wear my pants underneath my trousers thank you very much and I can’t even say the word fanny let alone use it to describe my bottom. I feel violated just writing it down.

The most disturbing phrase I discovered on a trip to Canada. Picture the scene: it’s a balmy summers day and I’m enjoying a barbeque in a friend’s garden, meeting new people, having a few drinks, enjoying my holiday. I’ve nearly finished one drink and someone hands me another so I’ve got a drink in each hand. Suddenly the beautiful scene is shattered by a man who I’ve only just met saying four words to me “Are you double fisting?”. I’m momentarily stunned. What sort of pervert does my friend socialise with? How do I respond? Fortunately for the poor unsuspecting chap, my friend was within earshot and shouts loudly and calmly across the garden in a reassuring manner “Two drinks! You have a drink in each hand! They call that double fisting over here!”. Crisis averted. Although, if he was making some lewd comment, what would I have done?… Apologised probably.