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Sorry, did you want milk?



We Brits are an apologetic bunch north and south of the border. The sign of a good upbringing where I'm from is apologising to the person who bumps into you. My toddler already chants "I sorry!" while colliding his truck with the head of a stuffed animal.


Outsiders to the complex British code for conflict avoidance are right to find it baffling, but mostly wrong to consider it insincere. The British "sorry" is not the "have a nice day (if I don't say this I'll be fired and please tip me, because there is no minimum wage in South Carolina)" sign off of our American cousins.


A British person will say sorry for just about any sub-optimal situation, from "sorry, I need a haircut" to Piers Morgan. Sorry is less an apology than an expression of spontaneous camaraderie. I'm a human, you're a human and I'm sorry I'm paying for this latte with a £20 note.


In terms of avoiding conflict, the British sorry is an incredibly effective construct in a society that values civility and affability. I once saw an elderly man cut in front of another to board a bus outside the National Gallery, breaking the cardinal Edinburgh rule that he who has waited longest boards first.


A simple "sorry, after you" would have diffused this misunderstanding entirely but the gentleman boarding wasn't in the mood that day, resulting in the most remarkable pile of tweed and walking sticks I have ever seen on a pavement.


Saying sorry is therefore a communications strategy that British people choose to employ artfully, or not, to their overall advantage.


By saying sorry to get the attention of a waiter when you ask for the bill, you're betting that they (the waiter) will see you as someone who understands their situation - rushed, tired, at the end of a long shift - and that this empathetic interaction will lead to a positive outcome, like the waiter bringing the card reader to your table first.


When you break it down, that all sounds a bit calculating, but it's a strategy that only works when the sorry comes across as sincere.


A sincere sorry changes our perspective and lowers our protective barriers: turning a perfect stranger from a "them" to an "us" in our minds.


In certain situations the British sorry presents a problem though, like when giving an acceptance speech. "Sorry, I won't take up too much time" is a phrase that too often intrudes on the celebration of some truly poignant success in this country.


Sorry gets in the way of celebrating success because, if I've succeeded I'm no longer an "us" I'm a "them". I've become something "other".


When it comes to giving a speech, demonstrating to the audience that you are an "us" and not a "them", doesn't have to come at the cost of making yourself smaller.


Don't be sorry for being sorry, it's a fascinating part of our linguistic heritage, but don't hesitate to take up space and time on stage either, because the audience has come to see you.


No one will be sorry they had the chance to hear how you struggled, overcame and ultimately triumphed.