Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The American Art of Apologizing Without Actually Apologizing

Okay, so I promised some time ago to talk about what the way we speak English says about Americans. Of course, since I'm not studying English currently, I didn't have any flash recall moments. But I do have a couple of examples that I find very interesting and telling about the American psyche. They are, I suspect interrelated. So, let me hop right in:

You Should be Ashamed of Yourself...

You may be aware that in American English, if someone is shaming themselves, behaving shamefully, or has an accident that "is a shame", there's no fundamental difference. There isn't a way to say "Shame on you" that is stronger than, well, Shame on you. We don't have the concept of "levels of shame". Arabic, on the other hand has 3 levels of shame. The first haram, is rather mild, poor thing, what a shame, stop that's shameful. This is used in everyday life. The second, 3ayb, is a bit stronger. It's used when something isn't just a pity, but is unacceptable behavior. The final level is 3aar. This is a truly egregious shame. So, for Americans, there's no shame culture and little shame concept. This leads, perhaps naturally into my second uniqueness of American English.

I'm Sorry You Misunderstood Me...

Americans are masters, wait let's give that a capital letter, Masters at apologizing without ever actually apologizing. This one is viscerally in mind due to a recent business situation. A vendor made a mistake. It was egregious enough to get them booted from the contract. In discussing a potential recovery program, I indicated that the responsible fellow should apologize. Mind you, it wasn't all his fault - he was provoked. But his behavior was still 3ayb. He balked at the apology. I tried to explain that an American apology should be employed. Something to the effect of "I'm sorry that he was offended" or "I apologize that my actions were perceived as inappropriate." In other words, you say sorry without accepting responsibility or owning the action. You make it about the other person's choice of reaction. I'm fairly certain that this wasn't invented in the US, but I do think we take it to all new levels.

We are astonishingly adept at apologizing without ever actually offering an apology. And we get away with it... alot. In particular, intelligent people (who are fairly good actors) make it seem that the apology is so sincere that those less mentally gifted buy it hook, line, and sinker. And, don't even get me started on what happens with a tricky American using convoluted "apologetic sounding" words with someone who's first language is not English. This is akin to saying in a nice long-winded, convoluted way "I'm sorry you're such a {insert expletive that equals a body part on the hind end of the body}". I've actually heard people use flowery words to effectively say that. Not here, in the US, with other native English speakers. I've also seen them be thanked for the apology.

So, for my first brief look at American English, we are an unashamed people. Which, I assure you, is not always good. It can be bad - very bad. Any thoughts on additional oddities of American English that say something about our culture?

Happy I'm Sorries!


At 1:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What English letter is the first sound in "3ayb"?
What sound does "3" make? Can you please clarify?>
Thanks for the great post about apologies.

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At 5:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

the reason there aren't different words to depict levels of shame in american english is because it's not an honor-shame society. and that is probably a good thing. still, there are modifiers (e.g., i'm ashamed, i'm so ashamed, i shall forever be ashamed), so the notion of levels of shame isn't entirely alien. but shame is not so much externally imposed, rather a private feeling, something between the person and his conscience/his god/whatever you want to call it.

At 5:03 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

The only thing I would say is that Haram shouldn't be the lowest level of shame in this list. Indeed the word Haram means it is forbidden. But unfortunately in the colloquial, it has been turned into something that it isn't. They have cheapened the meaning and they overuse it.

You are so right that Americans can apologize without really 'owning' the apology. But I much prefer the 'un' flowery-ness of our language. I always feel like Arabs are using all this polite language but they don't mean it at all.

At 6:40 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Anonymous (the first), there is no English equivalent. This letter is made by squeezing your throat partially closed then pressing air through it :). At least that's the best I can do in describing it. The closest you can get is string a couple of As together, but you don;t come anywhere near the sound.

Anonymous Jessica, I'll certianly check that out. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

Anonoymous 3, Indeed while you can use very or so to indicate a greater level of shame, there are some things we SHOULD be more ashamed of ;). But, in general I am not diapleased that the US is not an honor-shame based society. I just wish we thought a little bit more about things are were,in fact, more ashamed of them... (I would have liked a stronger word to describe many of the policies of the US's immediate past President).

Nicole, ah, indeed. Haram is indeed overused and likely cheapened, but in colloquial use it is the mildest form of being ashamed I think. I also think that Arabs tend to be overflowery in their use of English (which may or may not be sincere), but we Americans I'm afraid are spectacularly good at using words against people :(. Now, of course we have our good traits (many of them), but...

At 11:34 AM , Blogger UmmFarouq said...

Think of the "3" as what you do when the doctor looks down your throat with a tongue depressor, and then swallow while making that sound...there you have our beloved "ayn." (name of letter)

Gosh, Momma, you are such a social commentator these days. I'm loving these posts.

Let me preface this by saying: I'm sorry if I've offended you in any way. Now: 'haram' the way you go around letting your children wear baseball uniforms without undershirts in 90 degree weather. And AYB how you reuse those water bottles!!! HA!


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