Yesterday, I was sitting at a bar and a woman bumped into me lightly. ‘Sorry’, she said. Then she bumped into someone else and she apologized again. I looked at her and asked why she was apologizing so much. She did not have to apologize to me, as I was not offended in the first place. ‘Oh well’, she said, ‘this is just an English thing. We say sorry for everything.’ Hearing this, I responded: ‘well, if you want to say sorry, say it to the Indian people.’ At first, she did not understand what I meant. But when she realised that I was referring to colonisation, she became upset. ‘You Dutch have been colonising many countries as well! I am not saying sorry. Not to you and not to everyone.’ After this the woman walked away.
What I found interesting about this event, was how thin the social layer of behaviour is. Initially she was apologizing to anyone for no reason, but when it became personal, she refused to apologise at all. Personally, I do not care if someone says sorry or not. But I do care about people being integer: what you say should correspond with what you mean. And when someone’s behaviour is not in line with their meaning, this strikes me as odd. It is like a violin player in a beautiful suit who plays a false instrument.
This event made me wonder what the function of social behaviour or etiquette is. And yes, it can be very beneficial. Social etiquettes are civilized standardised behaviour (form) which allows for many different people to interact with each other. It is the grease of social interaction and it avoids confrontations. Up to 3 generations ago, social etiquettes were so important that by the way you would talk and act, your social status would be revealed.
But for social etiquettes to be effective, their form needs to be aligned with the content. You can say sorry, but if you do not mean it, it is just a hollow phrase. Then social etiquettes become dishonest and untruthful. The woman in this example most likely was not aware that she was saying ‘sorry’ so often and thus this is just unconscious behaviour. But some people use social etiquettes purposefully to mislead people. They are like bankers with great manners and in a nice suit who will, with a big smile, sell you a dodgy subprime mortgage.
Hollow social etiquettes is miscommunication and as a result it has lost its benefits and can even be harmful. They are standardized automatisms (how are you? I am fine) which lead us away from what actually is. I was glad to hear the woman say that she was not sorry at all. For anything. This was clear communication and she meant it. Of course it is not really social acceptable to say that out loud, but at least I had integer interaction.