I wrote this post ten years ago. At that time it was linked to by CNN as part of a report on Canada.
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 way too much, perhaps even when 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.
… it is customary to reply with ‘you’re welcome’, ‘my pleasure’, or even, if you must, ‘no problem’. It is never appropriate to reply with ‘sure’ or ‘uh-huh’!
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 says thanks or thank you, it is customary to reply with ‘you’re welcome’, ‘my pleasure’, or even, if you must, ‘no problem’. It is never appropriate to reply with ‘sure’ or ‘uh-huh’!
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.
‘Sorry, I didn’t realize you are a total arsehole unable to function in normal society’
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 empathize with them. In our case, we feel sorry for the cloddish boor for being a cloddish boor.
In Quebec, we have state-run no-fault insurance for damage caused by a car accident. This program is described as “no-fault” because insurance coverage is determined without regard to a driver’s responsibility. Each driver’s insurance company pays for that driver’s car damage.
In our case, we feel sorry for the cloddish boor for being a cloddish boor.
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.