I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue

I’m afraid it’s bad news. I’m going to have to amputate your leg.

Oh, lovely!

Sometimes we Brits can be a bit self-deprecating, looking on the bright side, making the best of things and solving problems with a cup of tea. And apologising. Someone treads on your foot ,”Oh, I’m sorry I got in your way”. You are buying food, “I’m sorry, could I have one of those cakes?”. Apologising when it isn’t our fault is built into the national psyche. Only the Japanese apologise more than we do.

We all know what we mean when we say “I’m sorry”, but while it is an acknowledgement of a (possible) slight against the other person, oiling the wheels of social interaction, it isn’t really an expression of sorrow. We don’t actually feel sad (embarrased, maybe), but it is the polite thing to imply that we are. So how do they do it abroad?

In Spanish, you say “Lo siento”, which literally means “I feel it”. It is an expression of empathy, that whatever you might have done to them, you are now sharing their suffering. Somehow you feel a bond between you. But it sounds sarcastic if you try it in English, “I feel your pain.” No true Englishman wants to reveal his inner feelings. Not for us the Mediterranean warmth.

In French, it is “Je suis désolé”, which I suppose is closer to “I’m sorry”. But it has more of a poetic ring to it, “I am desolate!”. It evokes a sense of emptiness and loneliness. No sharing there.

In German, “Es tut mir leid”. “It gives me pain”. Right.

In Italian, “Mi dispiace”. “It displeases me.” That sounds a bit gracious, doesn’t it?

In Portuguese, “Me desculpe.” I suppose that means something along the lines of “Exculpate me” or “I’m not culpable”. It’s not really all that different from “Excuse me”, is it?

In Mandarin Chinese there are quite a few ways of expressing degrees of regret. 对不起 (in PinYin duì bù qǐ – PinYin being a commonly used phonetic system for rendering Chinese into Roman letters, though they aren’t really pronounced the way they are in English, or any other language that uses Roman script. The accents represent tones – pitch changes – which are essential for distinguishing different words. So the pronunciation here is something like “dooy boo chee” with the pitch falling on the first two words and starting to rise again on the third). It means something like “unworthy”, implying a debt of sorts to the other person. Another frequent phrase is 不好意思 ( bù hǎo yì si, more like boo-how-ee-suh) “not good feeling”, which suggests at the very least embarrassment, if not downright guilt.

In Japanese you will hear すみません (sumimasen) all the time, and if you are planning on going there it is probably the first word you should learn, even before “hello” and “thank-you”, which are the two words I try to master wherever I am going on holiday (I have found that making this small effort is hugely appreciated wherever in the World you travel to. Except France). I have been told that the literal meaning is “it is unforgiveable”, but so far I haven’t seen anybody falling on their sword after jostling a stranger in a crowd. But then I haven’t seen anybody back home crying their eyes out, either.

I once tried learning some Thai prior to a trip to Phuket. I didn’t get very far, though, as I couldn’t really figure out the pronunciation (unlike Hindi, where I just couldn’t sound enough like an Indian grandmother to be intelligible, or produce the vowels that require speaking through your nose, or distinguish between the plain version of every consonent and the one with an H after it), and the sentence structure was not only tortuous but depended on the sex of the speaker. Oh, and they don’t tell the time the way we do. So I’m the one who should apologise: ขอโทษ (is that “kaw toat”?) “Request punishment”.

I’m not sure whether the conversation at the top of the page is genuine. However, I did witness the following exchange on a vascular surgeon’s ward round at Westminster Hospital when I was a medical student there in the 1980’s:

I’m afraid we’re going to have to shorten your leg.

Oh, thank God for that! I thought I was going to have to have it amputated.

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