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"Sorry, but I’m not (really) sorry”: The Canadian circus of apology

Are Canadian apologies really just a performance?
Published November 28, 2018 by Julia Lane

by Myrthe de Haas

Autobiographical statement

I was born and raised in the Netherlands.  I have lived in Amsterdam my whole life, and have been studying English since high school.  As a high school student, I never liked English classes because my teacher was very mean.  He always became angry when someone made a mistake, so I was afraid to speak English during my entire high school period.  As a result, my English was not good, but I wanted to improve, so I took an EF English course for two weeks in Dublin.  At that time, I was fifteen years old and moving to Ireland was a huge step for me – two weeks in an unknown country with a different culture where everyone spoke English.  However, I learned a lot from that period.  After high school, I started a Bachelor’s degree in Economics at the University of Amsterdam. The program was in Dutch, but many of our textbooks and lectures were in English. However, I still found my English insufficient and really wanted to improve my language skills.

The perfect time for an exchange semester for most students in the Netherlands is during the last year of a Bachelor program.  Many of my fellow students went on exchange during one of those semesters, but, I was not ready for it yet.  Later on, I had a conversation with my study advisor and we talked about my future. I explained that I wanted to extend my study period, and so he encouraged me to go on exchange.  He told me that an exchange would be a special opportunity to broaden my perspective, to leave my comfort zone totally for the first time in my life, and to experience a new culture.  I had many doubts about the idea of an exchange.  Why would I leave my perfect life in Amsterdam?  I had everything I could wish for.  Luckily, my family and friends encouraged me to go to Vancouver despite all my doubts and uncertainties.

After three months in Canada and with only a few weeks left, I can definitely say that I made a good decision to go to Vancouver.  I have really enjoyed my time here; I do not have any regrets.  I have made many friends, and we do a lot fun activities together. I have also chosen interesting courses, and especially enjoy the course, Leadership.  My Canadian adventure will also look really good on my curriculum vitae.  I am so glad I made the decision to go on exchange even though I have to admit that I was really afraid beforehand.  I can say for sure that this exchange is a positive and successful major event in my life.  I am significantly improving my current English language skills because of the practical overflow and my regular courses.  Besides that, I am registered in the program, Academic English Grammar and Writing for Multilingual Learners.

I am not only improving my language skills, but am also expanding my knowledge of Canadian culture. I am able to better understand cultural differences and am experiencing huge differences between Canadian culture and the Dutch culture.  I am used to Dutch culture and I love it.  Dutch culture is very direct; people say what they think.  This freedom of speech is really valued by Dutch residents. The Dutch usually have an opinion on any topic, and freely share it with others, solicited or unsolicited. It seems that no topic is off-limits for the Dutch. These cultural aspects seem totally different from Canadian culture.

Critical incident

…“identity can be understood in a meaningful way only by understanding others and by recognizing and highlighting one’s difference in relation to others” (Kumaravadivelu, 2008, p. 145)

During my second day in Canada, I was buying groceries in the supermarket. I was looking for toothpaste, but I had no idea where to look.  Since I was not paying attention to where I was going, I accidently stepped on a woman’s foot. I wanted to apologize directly—it was obviously my fault—but, before I could offer my apology, the other woman directly said sorry. She even looked embarrassed. I was so surprised. If a similar situation happened in the Netherlands, the woman would look really angry, and proper Dutch etiquette would demand that I say sorry at least three times before she walked away, angrily. I know Canadians are really polite, but it was absolutely not her fault. Later that week, I bumped into a man while walking along a shopping street. It was the same story—again my fault—but he apologized directly. Afterwards, I started to think that Canadians use the word “sorry” all of the time: “Sorry, can I have some Ketchup?” “Sorry, is this table free?” “Sorry, that I say sorry so many times.” This custom is so different compared to the Netherlands where sorry is a rare word.  In the Netherlands, it seems like people are even afraid to use the word.  On the other hand, it seems that everyone uses the word in Canada all of the time.  To say the word sorry to someone who is obviously wrong seems to clearly be a Canadian phenomenon.  Why is there such a huge difference in the way the Dutch and Canadians apologize? Moreover, what is the meaning of the word “sorry” in Canadian society?

Commentary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word sorry means “feeling sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, especially when something unpleasing has happened or been done.”  It stands to reason that the official meaning of sorry can be used if a person feels regret about an action. This reasoning is consistent with Humber (2008) who notes that it is appropriate to use the word sorry if you have committed a wrong action. He notes that sorry will make the situation more pleasant, although, it will not solve your mistake. However, Canadians seem to use the word in a different way. Onstad (1999), for example, maintains that Canadian culture is “an apology-mad culture” (p. 23).

Most Canadians would acknowledge that the word sorry is an important part of the Canadian psyche. In terms of what research can tell us about this phenomenon, Onstad (1999) points out that people often apologize in the Canadian media, and because of this overuse of the word, sorry has almost become meaningless. It seems that many Canadians no longer know what the actual meaning of sorry is anymore but tend to use it as a reflex or as meaningless form of politeness (Keeler, 2017). How could a Canadian apology become meaningful?  Wiebe (2018) believes that an apology will only become acceptable if it is accompanied by actual action because “words are meaningless unless actions and policies change” (p. 11).

Significantly, Keeler (2017) points out that an important Canadian value is being different from American culture. Although a number of authors have noted that Canadians apologize all the time—sometimes even as a reflex or nicety—the word sorry is reportedly not as common in the United States (Keeler, 2017). In fact, Keeler (2017) argues that in the United States, sorry is sometimes seen as a sign of guilt or even weakness. It seems that Canadians want to be seen as different from Americans, and one way they do this is by apologizing frequently. Conventional wisdom has it that people use sorry to express regret. However, Canadians could also use this word to avoid potential conflicts. Based on my own experiences, this way of using the word sorry is not the case in the Dutch culture.  

It is well known that Canadian nation has a reputation for multiculturalism and peacemaking. Hence, Canadians have a lot of pride and may want to maintain this positive self-image.  Keeler (2017) notes that people who apologize quickly are more likely to minimize conflict. This practice can be witnessed in official Canadian communications. For example, Sillars (1998) notes that Canadian authorities use the apologize-tactic often in official apology statements. Keeler (2017) also believes that the Canadian government retains official relationships by repeating the diplomatic “sorry”. This practice could be understood as a way for the Canadian government to maintain its positive relationships with different groups and maintain political stability.  In fact, Onstad (1999, p. 23) maintains that “the apology has become a convenient political tool” for Canada.

Epilogue

I think that the word sorry should be used when one truly feels regret.  Based on my observations, it seems that apologies are used so often in Canadian culture that people may not be aware of their actual meaning anymore, but tend to use sorry as a reflex.  Saying sorry may also be a way Canadians differentiate themselves from Americans and avoid conflict (Keeler, 2017).  In my opinion, sorry can only be meaningful if Canadians follow an apology by an actual action.  Through my critical incidents, I have gained a better understanding of Canadian culture and have come to a better understanding of my own Dutch culture.  Like Kumaravadivelu (2008) states above, an important way we learn about ourselves is by examining how we are different from others.

line drawing of Canadian land mass

References

Humber, T. (2008). Don't apologize for being sorry. Canadian HR Reporter, 21(19), 34 Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/220779236?accountid=13800

Keeler, E. (2017, Jan 19), Sorry — can we talk about why Canadians apologize so much? Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/2017/sorry-can-we-talk-about-why-canadians-apologize-so-much-1.3939997 

Onstad, K. (1999, Dec). Who's sorry now? Saturday Night, 113, 23-25+. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/222350894?accountid=13800

Sillars, L. (1998). Canada means always having to say you're sorry Ottawa’s apology to native peoples in the "statement of reconciliation"] Alberta Report, 25(6), 10-11. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/195777340?accountid=13800

Wiebe-Neufeld, D. (2018, Mar 26). What does 'sorry' mean? Canadian Mennonite, 22, 11. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/2026950621?accountid=13800

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