Sorry for being British

I went out with this Spanish girl for a little while back when I lived in London and one night she asked me why British people say “sorry” all the time. I just joked that she only thought it was strange because “you foreigners are so rude” but I knew what she meant, we do seem to be perpetually apologizing for one thing or other, even for things that aren’t our fault (eg: saying sorry to a person who bumps into you). It’s as if we’re apologizing for our very existence.

The online forum British Problems lifts the lid on that part of our psyche and the way our politeness and self-effacement can reach neurotic extremes, leading to a dread of being a bother or making a fuss, horror of committing a faux pas, and hypersensitivity about what strangers think of us. In such a state, everyday life becomes a treacherous minefield of awkwardness and embarrassment.

On the bus: I accidentally rang the bell on the bus at the wrong stop, and instead of explaining my predicament to the driver, got off and walked the rest of the way home (I have done this!)

On the Tube: When there’s an empty seat on a busy Tube everyone is too polite to sit there. This is awkward for everyone involved.

At the shops: I feel awkward buying milk from the same corner shop two days in a row.

At work: After helping out a new colleague at work, he suddenly ‘high-fived’ me. I now avoid helping him out and feel guilty about it.

And we wouldn’t be British if we weren’t hyper-aware of class: There was a working class family in Waitrose. I can’t tell anyone about this in case they think I’m a terrible snob.

It’s ironic that a people who once conquered and controlled half the planet should be like this. We never felt awkward about taking over another country, yet here we are worrying about inconveniencing a bus driver. Though I still think it’s preferable to the other side of the coin.

Download: The British Way of Life – The Chords (mp3)



  1. Artog says:

    On the site: My friend spoke in a lift full of people. Totally feel that. Even to this day I find it excruciating when my dad talks to me on the bus, he’s a bit deaf and tends to boom. And those seats towards the back on the lower deck of double decker buses, the ones where the seats face each other. Whoever designed those lacked any insight whatsoever into the British psyche.

  2. Almost every one of those examples could apply to Canadians as well. The bus, the empty seat – I’ve seen them all. My city it bringing in new buses, and they have facing seats, a fact that’s been criticized already as forcing awkward interaction on transit. So there you go – colonized in the mind as well as on the map.

    The only thing that I don’t get is the “working class family in Waitrose” thing. Class isn’t as rigid or as obvious over here; it’s the one way we’re more American. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but the signifiers are far less obvious, and we don’t have helpful accents to tip us off. So everybody just pretends it doesn’t really exist. This is, of course, a discussion that could extend far beyond a mere comments section.

  3. juls says:

    I think it is called karma. The English and Japanese once terrorised nations big and small. The natives need to bow their heads or be beheaded. The Japanese redeemed themselves by giving the world fantastic electronic gear and automobiles. Ditto the Germans. The English is still stuck in Austin Allegro mode…

  4. LondonLee says:

    We gave the world the best pop music!

  5. Pete Dossett says:

    Talking of Sorry…we just started watching DVDs of the lesser talented Ronnie in the telly series of the same name….having exhausted Only Fools, Dad’s Army and Steptoe. D’you know what? It’s not half bad…lovely depictions of Britain in the Eighties too…

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com