We all know the drill. You open some random door with the intention of walking through it and find, quite coincidentally, that someone else is on the other side with the obvious intention of doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction. Who would’ve thought it – two people wanting to pass under the same doorway at the same moment? It’s almost too fantastic a tale to imagine!
Doing the ‘Two In A Doorway’ jig in the finest Riverdance tradition, the two of you dance around the door and each other for some seconds, before you avert your eyes shoewards muttering “sorry, thanks, sorry…”, feeling horribly shamed by the whole sordid affair. As you half skip, half jump through the door you don’t even consciously register your opposite number also apologising profusely, “Yeah, no… sorry mate… you’re right… sorry”, in that very Australian way.
It’s not as if any of us actively seeks out opportunities to block others as they innocently traverse the doorways of everyday life. We don’t loiter about ignobly, with the sole intention of disrupting the next person to attempt entry or egress of the nearest door. Most of the time we can’t even tell if there’s anyone on the other side or not. Yet whenever we find there is, our first reaction is to apologise. What are we sorry about? Just for being there? For unwittingly attempting do undertake the same commonplace action at the same time as someone else? For some misplaced sense of having gotten in the way?
It’s part of our collective psyche. Australians are sorry for everything, even when there’s no question of fault. We’ll bust out an apology for just about anything.
We say sorry when someone else bumps into us. They clearly weren’t watching where they were going and you’re sorry? Walk in to someone in New York or London and you’re lucky if all you cop is an earful.
We say sorry when we want to reach across, over or around someone – typically in the supermarket, or in one of those deceptively small airport newsagent’s that looks like it has oodles of room to move about in but where you actually find that the aisles are prohibitively narrow and there’s invariably someone standing right in front of the one thing you want.
We say sorry when we have to squeeze ourselves into restrictive spaces. This one’s big on public transport; where the only available choices are either to squeeze in or to stay behind and you choose to squeeze in because you actually don’t have a choice, you’re only doing what everyone else onboard has already done. You’re not really pushing anyone out of the way, because everyone else has already done that – you’re simply exerting an equal and opposite force on those around you with the sole intention of creating a space just as confined as everyone else’s for yourself to inhabit for the rest of the journey. These are not callous actions, heartlessly executed with malice aforethought. Unless you’ve stepped on someone’s foot or stabbed someone with the pointy end of your absurdly oversized umbrella, rarely is there any call for you to be sorry about anything.
We say sorry when someone asks us for some random object and we hand it over. “Sorry, here you go”. Sorry? For what? Because your powers of ESP failed you and you couldn’t accurately predict what you were about to be asked for?
And we always say sorry before we ask a question – “sorry, can I just ask something…”, “sorry, just a quick question…”, “sorry, just need to clarify something…” – what exactly are we apologising for?
Whatever happened to “excuse me”, anyway? Coz it occurs to me that when Australians say sorry, what they most often mean to do is excuse themselves. Excusing ourselves and being sorry for something are two entirely different things. So why are we clearly so reluctant to excuse ourselves, yet we’re always happy enough to be sorry about things that neither require, nor result in, any degree of sorrow whatsoever?
If I was walking around King’s Cross and found myself, without provocation, being king-hit, stabbed or shot at, I might expect the perpetrator to say sorry (or not). When an old man who shouldn’t have been driving anymore blindly drove into the side of my car last year, I might’ve expected him to say sorry (he didn’t). When my first love took up with someone else and broke my heart into a million pieces at the tender age of 21, I might’ve expected him to say sorry (he should’ve been). When a friend suffers a death in the family, we say sorry – no admission of guilt, it wasn’t our fault, but we’re sorry for our friend’s sadness. These are, indeed, all sorry-worthy things.
It’s almost ironic, then, that it’s such a big deal for anyone to say sorry about really important stuff. The so-called ‘stolen generation’ is an obvious example. But, without making light of the 150 years of atrocious human rights breaches that lead up to it, could there possibly be a more appropriate day for a nation of sorry people than 26 May each year – “National Sorry Day”. Without meaning to offend, it’s impossible for me to avoid how very apt a day dedicated to saying “sorry” really is for Australians, on so many levels.
Sorry… it just is!