The Psychology of Sorry: Why Canadians can’t stop apologizing

An illustration showing 5 people. Text bubbles come out of their mouths with the word "sorry" being said over and over.
Canadians are known for our excessive apologies, but where did this impulse come from? Illustration: Pamoda Wijekoon

What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever apologized for?

I was once stuck in the middle of a busy, construction-filled Toronto intersection. Instead of honking, the drivers in the cars that were forced to manoeuvre around me waved, as if to say sorry for getting too close. I, in turn, waved back to apologize for being in their way.

As a Canadian, I’m no stranger to the stereotype of how the word ‘sorry’ dominates our vocabulary. Politeness has become a popular characteristic of Canada’s global reputation, but in many ways the stereotype is true.

Our culture is so apologetic that the word seems to have lost its meaning. It’s reached the point where the automatic response to any scenario is an apology, even if it’s unnecessary.

So where does the Canadian need to apologize come from?


Oops—sorry!

Dr. Rebecca Heiss, who studies evolutionary biology and stress management, told The Pigeon that apologies are an important tool for creating interpersonal cooperation. Although she isn’t from Canada—instead a close-by New Yorker—Heiss experienced some culture shock when she moved from New York to a more southern state.

The attitudes of people around her were the most surprising. Heiss explained that historically, the North—including Canada—was mostly settled by farmers, who owned plots of land, while the South was settled by herders, who had flocks of sheep or cows.

“[In the northern states,] you have neighbours that are fairly well established, so there’s this massive amount of [cooperation],” she said. “You’re really friendly to your neighbour, you want your neighbour to get along with you, and that’s really important because you’re not going anywhere.”

“Herders have to maintain their reputations, because you can steal a sheep, you can steal a cow, you can easily steal pieces and parts of their livelihood,” she said.

“In herding culture, the culture of honour that’s maintained in the south, it’s very much: ‘We’re going to be super respectful, we’re going to offer you sweet tea, we’re going to do everything extra respectfully,” she said. “But then if you cross [Southerners], there’s an explosion of anger and strife and toughness.”

“There’s a requirement to maintain a reputation of, ‘Don’t mess with us.’”

This pressure to get along has a biological root: the fear of rejection. By apologizing, you promote a sense of belonging, that you’re willing to be wrong and admit that you’ve crossed the line to keep the peace.

Humans can recognize someone else’s rules, and work within those confines, said Heiss.

“It’s just a way of showing [cooperation],” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Look, I belong here, I’m part of this, and I want to get it right.’”

Even in the face of rejection, there’s an increasing need to keep the peace. In a column for The Globe and Mail, Cathal Kelly recently wrote about the Canadian federal government rejecting the Blue Jays’ proposal to play out its season in Toronto.

Kelly described the Jays’ President’s response—“It is without any hesitation that I tell you we respect the decision,”—as, “the sports-executive version of reflexively saying ‘sorry’ when someone slams into you on the sidewalk.”

“Canada,” Kelly wrote. “Stay here long enough and it’ll get into your head.”


Feeling guilty

Another crucial part of compulsive apology is guilt, which Heiss called a “culturally-built emotion,” because it is rooted in moralizing values.

Once I stepped on my dog’s tail and said ‘sorry,’ feeling genuine guilt, even though he didn’t even wake up or whine. ‘Sorry’ isn’t even one of the nine English words he knows.

Some cultures and identities, as well as certain religious groups, promote guilt so individuals comply to societal norms. Heiss’ research focuses on women, who, for a long time, were less physically dominant in society compared to men, and had to be more cooperative to keep themselves safe.

In many cultures, religion also dictates the dominant societal norms and values.

The history of religious traditions like confession, where individuals acknowledge the wrongs they’ve committed, forces an increased awareness of moral wrongdoing. This guilt is meant to strengthen one’s relationship with a deity through them seeking forgiveness for a transgression.

In a modern context, seeking forgiveness—saying ‘sorry’—is usually used for smaller transgressions, so much so that it’s created the inclination to apologize for an act you didn’t commit. Have you ever been cut off in traffic and apologized? Or had a stranger run into you, but you were already saying sorry?

Heiss, however, pointed out that today’s social stakes are much different than they were in the past. Being socially rejected was once a life-or-death issue, since belonging to one’s tribe meant safety. In today’s culture, you can join other tribes—or find a new social circle—with less struggle.

Dr. Glenn Geher, another evolutionary biologist, wrote a Psychology Today article titled “The History of ‘I’m Sorry,’” wherein he suggests that the evolutionary function of apologizing is to maintain reciprocal altruism. This is the belief that if you do someone a favour, they’ll do one for you in the future.

The unspoken neighbourly contract of shovelling a neighbour’s sidewalk is a perfect example—no one’s quite keeping score, but there’s still an expectation that you’ll eventually wake up to a cleared path one random morning.

Feeling sorry suggests that you’ve caused damage in some way, and apologizing attempts to correct it. As a result, empty apologies can make you seem more guilty than you actually feel. Geher’s article even suggests how to behave so that you don’t feel the need to apologize, and how to accept apologies so you can maintain positive relationships.


Saving Face

Apologies are also an important facet for political parties and corporations to maintain their image—sometimes to the point of overuse. Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights even has a database of major political apologies on their website. Research has been done that suggests that an apology even qualifies as its own strategy of speaking.

The National Post recently published a piece of commentary that opens with the question, “What is a Trudeau apology worth?” The article then compares Trudeau’s mistakes in office to various sins, harkening back to the religious guilt built into society.

Trudeau’s apologies are often for the government’s past actions on the country’s behalf, but he’s also had to apologize for his own behaviour.

In Sept. 2019, photos taken of Trudeau in 2001 surfaced, showing the Liberal leader in Blackface for a Halloween costume.

He held an emergency news conference to apologize, saying he didn’t know better at the time, but he should’ve.

Some found the action unforgiveable, while others appreciated the claim that he didn’t realise the issue at the time, and wouldn’t do it again.

But sometimes, an apology isn’t accepted.  

Recently, American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rejected an apology from Congressman Ted Yoho, who called her a “f—cking bitch” on the steps of the US Capitol building. He later said that there was a “misunderstanding” of his language.

Ocasio-Cortez responded that she could not stand to see Congress accept Yoho’s statement as a legitimate apology, stating that his intent was to silence her.

Apologies are often issued to avoid conflict, whether they’re genuine or not. Yoho was merely trying to put out the fire, and Ocasio-Cortez recognized that.

In a speech on the House floor, the Congresswoman said she didn’t need Yoho’s apology, since he clearly didn’t mean it.

“I will not stay up late at night waiting for an apology from a man who has no remorse over […] using abusive language towards women,” she said.

Offenders often apologize to protect their self-image and absolve themselves of guilt, not to offer reparations to the victim.

The New York Times suggested that Ocasio-Cortez used this to amplify her own political brand” by failing to follow the social protocol of accepting a formal apology.

Whether this would ever pass in Canada, where we merely drop the word sorry and move on, it’s hard to say.

While Trudeau seemed to offer genuine remorse, he’s becoming the boy-who-cried-sorry, offering a lot of apologies for various mistakes. In some ways, the Prime Minister’s constant apologies embody the reactionary Canadian ‘sorry.’


A little less sorry

If you’re not sure how much you over-apologize, Buzzfeed published a quiz that can help you determine if you say sorry excessively.

“I don’t know that we actually engage with the feeling [of being sorry], with the requirement of what we’re asking for,” Heiss said. “If we’re truly apologizing and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ it should be, ‘I’m sorry for [something].”

When asked how we can correct this, Heiss stressed the importance of conscious thought, and of asking ourselves why we’re apologizing for our misdeeds.

“Check in with your own brain and say, ‘Why am I having the feelings that I’m having right now? Am I having feelings of shame, and I having feelings of hurt, am I having feelings of anxiety?’”

Heiss also highlighted that many different societies live together in Canada, creating an incredibly diverse population. Despite the country’s myriad of cultures, she said there’s “this overarching ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, oops, sorry about that’ culture.”

As so many different groups of people have come to coexist within Canada’s borders, they’ve maintained the need to work cooperatively.

In many ways, the word “sorry” has transitioned meanings, becoming a reflexive or meaningless form of politeness.

Perhaps we Canadians need to find new words for genuine apologies and save ‘sorry’ for the traffic jams.

6 thoughts

  1. This is really interesting. We say sorry in Japan all the time as well, I never realised there are so many psychological meanings behind it. About your statement on finding a word for a ‘genuine’ apology, maybe instead you can find a new body language to express that? In Japan we bow and say sorry, and the more sincere you are the deeper you bow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s