I was asked today why I say sorry so much.1

It’s true. I do say it a lot. I say “Sorry!” even if I am not even slightly at fault: like when, say, someone has bumped into me, or spilled something over me. I say sorry for pretty much everything. Even when I’m not at all sorry. Mostly when I’m not at all sorry.

As to the why of all those sorrys. I used to think it was just me. That I have this weird sorry-saying nervous tic. But I now know it’s cultural. I say sorry all the time because I am an Australian girl.

I realised this when I was living in Spain and one of my friends there blew up about it. She yelled at me that if I said sorry one more time it would drive her insane.2 That I could keep my “sorrys” and my “thank yous” and “pleases” and shove them [somewhere unpleasant]. She never wanted to hear them ever again. After that it became a joke between us. Every time I slipped up I would say—you guessed it—sorry. She would glare at me and then I would say sorry for saying sorry for saying sorry.

The Spanish, I learned, do not say “sorry”, “please” and “thank you” a million times a day.

When I went back to Sydney I noticed—for the first time—that I was not alone. Pretty much every woman I know says sorry just as much as I do. More even. It was quite the revelation.

I have since noticed that many English women suffer this malady. And quite a few USians—especially the ones from the South.

I have no idea what it means. But I have dark suspicions.

  1. not for the first time []
  2. ¡Me vuelvas loca! []


  1. Rebecca on #

    Hey Justine,
    don’t worry, I say sorry all the time, and my friends get so mad. i’ve even had complete strangers at work tell me that I say sorry too much. oh well. what are you going to do?

  2. Tim on #

    1. when i was learning german I had to make myself say “excuse me” rather than “I’m sorry”, e.g. when trying to get someone’s attention.

    2. You’re right that this is far more prevalent among u.s. southerners than those from elsewhere. i noticed this when I lived in new york (i grew up in alabama, tennessee, and texas), and it comes through loud and clear when you encounter northerners in southern settings (e.g. at south by southwest). Not that the northerners are always brusque or unfriendly, just that they don’t put so much energy into the nicey-niceness.

  3. Justine on #

    Rebecca: I don’t feel remotely sorry about saying sorry. It’s not me—it’s cultural conditioning!

  4. Maud on #

    Yes, it’s true. You are not alone. The sorry disease also plagues those of us with southern (or, in my case, southern-ish) U.S. backgrounds.

    A friend of mine once made me start a “sorry jar.” Had to put a quarter in every time I said it….

  5. Kate Larking on #

    I learned about this “phenomenon” in one of my university classes dealing with business and communication. One reason women say sorry a lot to compensate for assertive behaviour and avoid coming off as ‘masculine’ or worse, a bitch. The other reason, which, for some reason, I can’t word this early in the morning, is something about needing forgiveness for mistakes or errors (Men don’t do the asking for forgiveness thing, they just assure they will fix whatever problem it is).

    Not to say it all belongs to men and women as separate categories, etc etc. I’m just relaying what I was taught X.x

  6. molly on #

    An exboyfriend and I decided, after I drove him crazy with too many sorries, that there are two kinds of sorry: sorry #1 (sorry, my fault) and sorry #2 (sorry, that sucks). Every so often i still have to specify which one i’m using so people don’t get annoyed about sorries!

  7. Jennifer on #

    A conversation I keep having all the time with someone or other who is having a shitty time in general right now:

    me: “I’m sorry.”
    them: “Why did you say sorry? YOU didn’t do anything!”
    me: “That’s NOT why i’m saying it! i’m not saying it because I did something to you, I’m just sorry you’re going through crap!”


    “I’m sorry.”

  8. Owldaughter on #

    We say ‘sorry’ for everything all the time up here in Canada! Fortunately, because most of us say it we don’t get mad at one another for doing it.

    It’s interesting to experience speech quirks in different places. The one that really got me when I was in southern NY/Pennsylvania was the use of ‘uh-hunh’ instead of ‘you’re welcome’.

  9. Erin on #

    heheh, I have a friend who does this too!

  10. Stacy on #

    Owldaughter: yes, it’s a very Canadian thing, even in the biggest urban centers. I’m constantly apologizing to people when they bump into me!

  11. Kenina-chan on #

    I say sorry so often it’s not even funny. Someone could knock me over and I’d say “sorry” out of instinct, but then I’d get pretty mad. My friend on the other hand says “excuse me” so often, she says it when she bumps into walls. i say “thank you” and “please” way too much because of my parents conditioning me too. I also hold open the door for people so often that I end up late. It’s not me being polite (only for a small amount of the time), it’s the conditioning! I’m from upstate NY. Maybe I’m just different.

    Justine, you should have taken photos of your desk, before and after.

  12. Ally on #

    OOH! i say it all the time. (from the south) and when i don’t, i can’t stop thinking that they’ll think i’m rude, even when its not my fault. And the same with thank yous. If like someone walks away before I say thank you i feel bad..
    lo siento

  13. janet on #

    My impression is that Australians and Brits (male as well as female) often say “sorry” where I would say “excuse me.” I don’t think it should be interpreted literally as an apology — I think it’s just an idiom. I mean, if you said “pardon me” all the time, people wouldn’t think you were literally asking to be pardoned, though they would probably think your English was weirdly formal or archaic.

  14. zebediah on #

    not me!

  15. Justine on #

    The kind of sorry I’m talking about usually isn’t an apology nor is it an expression of sympathy. It really is just a verbal tic.

    Kenina-Chan: I have taken an after photo just for you. Will post soon.

    Ally: ¡Discúlpame!

  16. janet on #

    This is a tangent, but when I was in Italy a few months ago I had an odd exchange with an Italian man who claimed that English-speakers never say “please,” whether they’re speaking in English or Italian. He was quite adamant about it, and he thought it very rude, which was funny coming from a man who eavesdropped on the conversation of some total strangers and then interrupted and harangued us about our manners and those of our compatriots. All of which goes to show that manners are not only cultural, and not only idiosyncratic, but also that it’s much easier to notice other people’s bad manners than your own.

  17. Electric Landlady on #

    I thought it was just us Canadians! (As I see Owldaughter and Stacy have already mentioned.)

  18. Kenina-chan on #

    Yay! An after photo!! Thank you! (<–I meant that one)

  19. Rebecca on #

    i used to say it way too often. i’ve cut back recently.

  20. Kadie-Wa on #

    TOtally true. I say sorry to everything. even if it’s what somone did to me, like walk into me or something, i’ll apoligize. i don’t know why. i think it’s like a habbit…

  21. Katie on #

    i just…naturally say it. it drives people crazy. i say it as in “sorry, that sucks” but people think i’m apoligizing. i am trying to stop though.

  22. emily on #

    my friend does that all the time!!!!!!! sometimes i start yelling at her becuase she says it too much. it kind of goes along with her personality though (she is an excedingly nice person who doesn’t even hate horribly annoying people). i live in ny, so its probably not regoinal. just her personality.

  23. sylvia_rachel on #

    canadians — of both sexes — do this, too. i consider it quite normal to apologize when someone bumps into me on the bus … which is probably pretty weird, now i think of it …

  24. Karen on #

    i always thought this was the domain of Canucks. we are notorious for being polite. now you tell me it isn’t just us? another assumption blown to bits.

  25. Cheryl on #

    Kevin is always getting mad at me for saying “sorry” too much. Naturally I apologize for doing it.

  26. Ammy on #

    So wait… saying sorry to a random person you bump into is considered weird?

    dang! hehe
    i also use the word ‘sorry’ just like an everyday phrase. i’ve never actually thought about it before, because everyone else i know (here in australia) does the same. in fact, i find it odd when people don’t give even a brief ‘sorry’ when they bump into you.

  27. amy fiske on #

    i say sorry all the time – and i’m completely unapologetic about it (pun intended). it’s considered good manners in the culture i grew up in.

    my pet peeve is when someone snaps at me: “it’s not your fault!” sheesh. adults should be able to read context and tell the difference between accepting blame and the other myriad uses of the word “sorry.”

  28. hillary! on #

    I have two stories of my over-usage of the words sorry and thank you.
    Last year I went to get tutoring for Algebra 2, every time I got a problem wrong I’d say ‘Sorry!’and my tutor (who was a really cute Russian guy) all of a sudden got really really really angry! I was so shocked. He told me to stop or he’d stop tutoring me, he said he felt that he wasn’t doing a good job in tutoring me, and I said sorry yet again. Then I told him not to worry because he was doing a better job than my teacher.

    And just last month I got my first detention ever! It should have been a Saturday school but because I’ve never had one he was lenient, so when he gave me the little pink slip I took it and said thank you. He was so confused. You could tell that no one had ever said thank you to him before for gettinhg a detention. But I did.
    Oh, and I did used to say pardon me alot when I didn’t hear what someone had said to me. But my friends got me to stop, so now I say “Come again?”

  29. ariel cooke on #

    i realized this summer how often i say sorry. i think i over-use it to seem less threatening. i was taking an online class and my little subgroup had one discussion area that we kept using. this meant i kept having to scroll through the old conversations where i was always starting out by saying sorry. i think i was trying to placate them while i pushed my agenda to control our group projects.

  30. Dawn on #

    I say sorry A Lot. I’ve also been told that it’s very annoying…and then I apologize for being annoying.

    I can’t help it!

  31. Lizzy-wa on #

    hehe. i dont say sorry that often. usally i say “well soooorrry!” all sarcastic-like. hehe.

    -Lizzy-wa OUT! 8)

  32. Jack Heath on #

    I take a lot of attitude from my girlfriend about how often I say sorry for things that aren’t my fault. I must be an Australian girl too!

  33. Justine on #

    Jack: Indeed, there is a certain kind of Aussie boy who also does it. But we girls outnumber you in the sorry-ing.

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