Things that I think and do
I’m not sure if anyone’s ever counted the number of times Hugh Grant blurts out “sorry” in Notting Hill, but I’d be prepared to bet that even attempting would reduce the viewer to a stupor – not to mention they’d miss most of the film by adding a line to the tally every ten seconds.
It seems as if every other line starts with “I’m terribly sorry” or “I must apologise”, and although this is endearing for the first twenty minutes or so, his bumbling manner of speech starts to get tiresome.
We could quibble for hours about how Hugh Grant’s characters are always charmingly befuddled and how he bumbles his way through films, making every line last approximately fifteen minutes. Last time I watched Notting Hill was with two other twenty-something guys (that’s the kind of thing young men enjoy, OK?) and we decided that if Russell “No-nonsense” Crowe was playing the lead it would cut at least an hour out.
Apologising is just too integral to the English manner of speech to be left out altogether. If Hugh didn’t say sorry every time he talked to another character it wouldn’t be a realistic portrayal of English conversation.
We say sorry when (and I’m sorry for putting this in a list):
It’s vital that we are as polite as we can be, and apologising helps serve that purpose. How could one possibly ask a favour without apologising in advance for any inconvenience that might cause? How insufferably rude would it be to not say sorry for getting in someone’s way when they bump into you? Imagine a world in which we simply said “you’re being silly” and didn’t prefix it with “sorry”. There’d be anarchy.
Our permanent sense of contrition is at odds with most other cultures – even other English-speaking ones closer to home. A Scottish teacher at the summer school I worked at told me that he’d had to start using lengthier phrases to ask for things or make decisions because initially people had thought him rude.
In France “I’m sorry” is “je suis désolé”, and it is only used for actual apologies. It means “I am desolated” so it describes quite a strong feeling – being truly sorry as opposed to just vindicating oneself with a word. “Excusez-moi” and “pardon” are also used but only for attracting attention, asking people to move out of the way or if you didn’t hear someone. The idea of saying “sorry” for these things just doesn’t exist in France.
Nor indeed does it in many other languages. This is partly because lots of them have a specific tense that can be used to make requests (useful for them, a pain in the neck to learn for us), but also because it’s simply not part of their culture to dither around when talking to someone.
As a concluding quiz, compare the two phrases and decide which one is Hugh Grant and which is a person of any other nationality in the world:
“Pass me the salt”
“Oh I’m terribly sorry, I don’t wish to trouble you at all but…erm…well gosh, I mean, would you mind awfully passing me the salt please? I do apologise.”
I’m sure you’ve got it right – give yourself a good slap on the back. Then apologise to yourself for daring to indulge in such uncivilised physical celebration.