Sorry isn’t good enough

Each morning I leave the house for the school bus stop at 7.25 am. By that time it is likely that I will have apologised about fifteen times already, and been apologised to about the same number of times. Our family manners culture remains quintessentially British in this respect. So it is that Eadred the Bald tells me, one minute after getting out of bed, that he is tired: “I’m sorry,” I say. He reminds me that I need to take the car in to have its exhaust pipe mended: he’s “sorry” about that. A child is “sorry” that they have left their jumper at school the day before. I’m repeatedly “sorry” two minutes after having screeched at everyone to hurry up and get out of the house. It rains: we engage in an orgy of regret. We have apology Tourette’s.

Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school
Two children, already wrung out with apologising before they even set off for school

I concede that our family, and British people in general, are penitent to an absurd degree about things which they have no need, or indeed any right, to be sorry for. A French friend has suggested to me that it is hypocrite to apologise for something that has nothing to do with you. Whilst in the moment this made my hackles rise, I have to admit that she had a point.

Despite this concession, saying sorry to someone remains, for me, a mark of empathy, a ritual display of the solicitousness which we owe to those around us. It may not be my fault that every child in my daughter’s class has to take their turn at reciting four verses of a tedious poem about la rentrée, but nonetheless I feel her pain. I am, at some level, “sorry”. And when my husband apologises to me for the rain, his emotional support somehow bears me up and carries me through (and, more to the point from his point of view, disarms me before I can throw a hissy fit).

Imagine, then, emerging from this cloistered world where everyone is repeatedly sorry into the Lyon rush hour. In Lyon, hardly anyone is ever sorry about anything, but if they are, they make sure never to manifest their contrition during l’heure de pointe.

So it was that, the other day, we rounded a tight corner in our car only to come face-to-face with a motorcyclist hurtling full pelt in our direction on the wrong side of the road. It was a bit of a shock. It may not have been our fault, but we didn’t want to kill the man, so we juddered to a halt. We awaited the flurry of mouthed apologies and hand signals signifying submission that would surely ensue.

We had, of course, forgotten that we were in France. There was to be no contrition or even expression of relief. Indeed, I believe a few gros mots may have been sent in our direction, and the rider’s gesticulations seemed somehow to imply that it was our car—travelling as it had been at the speed of an arthritic snail on the correct side of the carriageway—that was at fault. Presumably an apology would have endangered his sense of self (far better to endanger his physical existence than risk an implosion of his esprit). Whatever.

In case any of you are tempted to ascribe Monsieur Moto’s lack of contrition to his masculinity rather than his Frenchness, I can assure you that I have a voluminous supply of further examples, refreshed daily, which pays no heed to gender, creed or age. In the supermarché it frequently arises that I am walked into by some aged dame avoiding all eye contact and using her chariot as a battering ram. It is extremely rare in these circumstances that an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, will be issued for the grievous bodily harm which ensues. In fact, it takes every last millimetre of self-restraint that I possess not to apologise myself, the dame’s lack of remorse reaching such a pitch that I convince myself that it must have been me who was at fault all along.

In the boulangerie I have been known to ask for a pain complet when either none remain or none was ever made. Were I the one behind the counter, both my British servility and my business sense would lead me to apologise for the lack of wholemeal baked goods, perhaps give an explanation, and offer an alternative in their stead. Not so the lady in question. Il n’y en a pas, she says, without cracking a smile (cue my departure, tail between my legs).

During a meeting of volunteers, I witnessed one person receive a fearsome dressing-down from the chief volunteer about some failure in the work that they had done (for free), which had led to a mild inconvenience for someone else. By the end of the speech, even though the reprimand had nothing whatsoever to do with me, I could feel my face burning bright red, and my hands trembling. The person in question, however, managed to maintain a look of complete impassivity throughout. There was a pause at the end of the tirade. I held my breath, waiting for the apology that would come gushing forth. I heard a clock ticking. Then, bof, she shrugged. There was a further pause, before, finally, qu’est-ce que tu veux ? she asked, rhetorically. I could barely credit my ears. What could she be thinking? Surely this lack of contrition was going to further inflame her accuser… but no. The meeting was off once more on its merry way and no further mention was made of the heinous crime. As reticent as people are about apologising, it seems that nobody really requires to be apologised to either.

It has only recently occurred to me that I can play my natural contrition to my advantage in such an environment. When I in turn received a dressing down during the course of my inglorious volunteering career, I was ready straight away with a fulsome and heart-felt apology. As I stammered out my expressions of regret and deep repentance, every head in the room swivelled in my direction and regarded me with a blend of horror and pity more potent even than that normally reserved for my manglings of their language. I had barely got started on my sorry encomium when I was interrupted: non, non, ne t’inquiète pas, murmured my chastiser: ce n’est pas grave. Not grave? A moment ago it had been a matter of such gravity that I doubted that any of us in the room would survive to tell the tale. What had changed?

Quite simply, I think that I had flummoxed them all. Perhaps they had never heard an apology before? At any rate, they didn’t know what to do with it, and I, well, I got off lightly. Which is why I am sticking to my training regime of fifteen apologies before even leaving the house.

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12 thoughts on “Sorry isn’t good enough

  1. Dear Emily, Brilliant blog [again!]. I can empathise with your desire to apologise to the lady with the supermarket trolley – I do just that too! The other thing which I think slightly baffles foreigners too, is our multiple use of the words “thank you” – especially with shop assistants when I appear to say thank you for each of the many components of a check out!

  2. Didn’t you know that cars are supposed to jump onto the sidewalk or swerve into the ditch to allow motorcycles to pass, including on the wrong side of the road? The code de la route applies only to four-wheeled vehicles, not to motorcycles. And their license plates are too small to be captured on the radars, so speed limits don’t apply to them either.

  3. I particularly liked “apology Tourette’s”. But on this, I’m firmly with the French – no earthly point in apologising for something that isn’t your fault. Sorry!

    1. Oooooo, I don’t know. Apologising for things you can’t control may be irrational and pointless, but it also brings great comfort, not least by creating the illusion that you might actually have been able to do something about the rain…

  4. I’ve only just started living in France and find myself apologising, in detail, profusely for all errors I feel I’ve made to any French person. I’d started to think, and your post has just confirmed it, that in some cases I’m just embarrassing them. Great post!

    1. It’s deadlock: the Brit is mortified by the notion of not apologising, the French person mortified by the Brit’s remorse… I hope you’re settling in well and thank you for stopping by.

  5. It is, as you say, quintessentially British to apologise for things that are not our fault. Weird, really. The French do find it hypocritical – in the same way they are naturally suspicious of a stranger smiling at them. A French friend explained it like this: If someone you don’t know smiles at you, it must mean that they are trying to trick you in some way, because why would you smile at them if you don’t known them?

    After 22 years of living in France, I have learned not smile at strangers, and not to apologise. For anything. C’est pas normale!

    Vive la difference. 🙂

    1. No, no, surely you have not given up smiling? However pas normal it is, I think you should carry on, even if it causes you to be mistaken for the village idiot… Thank you for stopping by.

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