This post originally appeared in 2013. At the time it was linked to by CNN.
It is often said that we Canadians are polite to a fault. As a Canadian I would suggest, but certainly not argue, that it is impossible to be overly polite. People point out that we say thank you too much, perhaps even when being issued a traffic ticket. If someone gives you something you have two choices; you can say thanks, or no thanks, you don’t just ignore them.
As saying ‘no thanks’ probably won’t work with most cops you’re left with thanks officer. Thanks for the ticket. Just as an afterthought, when someone does say thanks, or thank you, it is customary to reply with ‘you’re welcome’, or ‘my pleasure’, or even, if you must, ‘no problem’. It is never appropriate to reply with ‘sure or ‘uh-huh’!
Saying sorry is often depicted as a national pastime in Canada: snow, bacon, hockey, and apologizing.
But maybe we are more often accused of being overly apologetic, so let me enlighten you as to the true nature of the Canadian apology. Saying sorry is often depicted as a national pastime in Canada: snow, bacon, hockey, and apologizing. However I think it would be of benefit to those who hold this opinion of Canadians as apologists to explain our apologies, because they can be very subtle in nature – often more empathetic than apologetic.
Let’s say a Canadian and a non-Canadian turn a corner and bump into each other on a sidewalk.
The Canuck will probably be the first to say cheerily ‘Sorry about that’ even though both were equally at fault, or perhaps no fault existed. The other person may also apologize, just as cheerily, resulting in what is known as a civilized exchange. Then again they may seize on the Canadian’s apology to feel superior and reply with ‘You certainly should be sorry’ or some other witty retort.
In Quebec we have state-run no-fault insurance for injury from car accident. This program is described as “no-fault” because compensation is determined without regard to a drivers’ responsibility. Any compensation is determined by a public agency, the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec, not a private insurance company. Neither individuals nor companies can sue the person responsible for an accident.
Keep this in mind the next time a Canadian apologizes to you; don’t be fooled by our oft used ‘sorry’, sometimes we’re actually expressing our sympathy for your shortcomings
In this case the subtlety of the sorry masks its true intent, which is along the lines of ‘Sorry, I didn’t realize you are a total arsehole unable to function in normal society’. You see, the sorry in this case is more akin to the sorry expressed to someone recently bereaved; you weren’t responsible for the death of the loved one, but you ‘feel’ sorry for their loss – you empathise with them. In our case you feel sorry for the cloddish boor for being a cloddish boor.
… don’t be fooled by our oft used ‘sorry’, sometimes we’re actually expressing our sympathy for your shortcomings
In fact, in 2009 Canada, with the exception of Quebec, passed the Apology Act. In this Act,. “apology” means an expression of sympathy or regret, not an admission of liability or guilt.
Keep this in mind the next time a Canadian apologizes to you; don’t be fooled by our oft used ‘sorry’, sometimes we’re actually expressing our sympathy for your shortcomings.