I’m sorry that I’m sorry
I grew up in Minnesota. I’m sure you may have heard the saying “Minnesota Nice”. In general, it’s not a misnomer. Maybe it’s something about living on what seems to be an arctic tundra six months out of the year, or the organized community effort we put in to combating mosquitoes the other six months, but people are generally pretty nice. The movie “Fargo”, though people INSIDE the state may find it comically untrue, is not far off when you’re looking at it from the Outside.
For instance: as a child, everyone said “I’m sorry.” It was one of those Things, like snow. People would apologize for everything, and there was little that couldn’t be met with a litany of “I’m sorry”s.
– If you bump in to someone: “I’m so sorry!” Why we say that: bumping in to someone, regardless of age, gender or race, could have caused the possibility of them falling over and cursing at us. We’re very sorry that it’s a possibility.
– If you and a stranger do that weird dance on the sidewalk when someone is going the opposite way and you’re both trying to get out of each other’s way but keep going in the same direction as you are trying to do so: “I’m sorry!” Why we say that: we have inconvenienced someone by taking up their time doing awkward sidewalk dances! The horror!
– If you have to hand in a bunch of work to someone, regardless of the contents of their inbox: “Sorry about that.” Why we do that: I don’t know. Generally people like to be employed, and “sorry, here’s some more stuff for you to do” isn’t all that awful. BUT, it allows the receiver to say the not-as-common “That’s all right!” in a cheerful and productive tone.
– If you stand too close to someone in the supermarket: “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” Why we say that: There is a multitude of reasons. First, the sayer is impinging on the social space of the other person. What if they are made uncomfortable? What if we actually BREATHED UPON THEM? Maybe they’re allergic to dogs or exceedingly frightened by people looming suddenly upon them and could have a heart attack at any possible second-
Sorry was employed in every possible social engagement: Sorry I wobbled a bit there, I didn’t mean to cause you a moment’s worth of worry that I may actually fall over and crush you beneath me. Sorry, this parking space just jumped out at me and now you can’t park here, really, I’m sorry about that. Sorry about drinking too much and asking for my keys! I’m REALLY sorry you’re angry, even though I don’t know why! Oh god, you’re crying, I’m sorry!! Your husband left you and I’m SO SORRY even though it’s obvious he met a special someone down at the Nineties and has probably been fooling himself all these years! Gosh, I am REALLY SORRY I got in the way of your fist, I’m quite sure you didn’t mean to actually PUNCH me, I am habitually clumsy, as you may know.
Can you imagine the confusion that happens when people raised with an infinite amount of apology actually get unleashed upon the rest of the country? I remember my first job in Virginia, when I thought I was standing too close to my boss when we were talking out in the parking lot.
“Sorry,” I said, moving back a step, even though HE had actually come in to MY bubble.
“For what?” he asked, stepping forward, back INTO my bubble.
“Um. Standing too close?” I edged back a nervous step.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he said with a chuckle, “You have to get used to us Southerners,” he stepped a very LARGE step forward.
In Minnesota, this is practically assault. I had to steel myself and remind myself that though he was within THREE FEET, this was PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE in other parts of the country where maybe they didn’t grow up with as much flat, empty space as I did.
Indeed, now that I’ve had several years to observe people in this general area, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you DON’T stand uncomfortably close, people view you with suspicion. As such, you can spot other Minnesotans a mile away because they’ll be the only ones holding a conversation with ten feet between them.
“I’m sorry” is also cause for suspicion. I’ve had people interrogate me for the reflex.
“Why are you saying I’m sorry?”
“Um.” This is always a terrible question to ask someone from that region. It’s such a reflex that often we’re not entirely certain. The only thing we’re certain of is that IF there exists even a REMOTE POSSIBILITY we have caused you a MILLISECOND of some emotion that is not exploding with happiness and baby unicorns, we’re sorry about it. “Because… um.”
Naturally, Other People will then view us with suspicion. “No, really, why are you saying sorry?”
“I don’t… um… Sorry, about the sorry… I…”
“WHY are you sorry?”
“Because … um.”
“THAT IS NOT AN ANSWER!”
“I’M SORRY!” [insert wailing here]
Obviously, the conclusion would be to stop saying “I’m sorry” to every offense, actual and possible, but it’s not so easy. It’s ingrained from childhood, just like the desire to don goofy rabbit-fur hats at the first frost or the primal urge to acquire anti-mosquito spray when the temperature goes above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two days in a row or the rush out the door when the snow quits falling to quickly shovel your sidewalk and then shovel your neighbors before he’s noticed it’s stopped snowing. It’s just how I am, I can’t seem to change it no matter what I do because I feel the urge to apologize for being so rude.