“Sorry there” vs “Excuse me” – subtle differences in British and Irish English

I’m going to step away from Somerset briefly to take a look at a small, yet (I think) interesting example of differences in Englishes.

I went over to London with two of my friends from Ireland to meet up with another friend from Ireland who is currently living there.  Off we went to my favourite museum, the Natural History Museum.  It was packed.  It was full of children.  Over-excited, over-tired children.  So perhaps it is understandable that parents (and indeed non-parents) might be a little frayed around the edges after a couple of hours in there.

Which is perhaps how this little incident occurred.  While trying to get through a particularly crowded area, two of my friends went ahead, squeezing past a woman who really wasn’t leaving a lot of room between her and the wall.  I went next, saying “sorry there” as I went.  This woman then shouted “IF YOU’D SAID ‘EXCUSE ME’, I’D HAVE MOVED”.  I was a little taken aback by this, and so was my Irish chum who was following behind me and unfortunately caught the full force of this outburst.

Of course, the immediate subject of conversation after this incident was about how rude that woman was.  But with hindsight, I’m now seeing it from a sociolinguistic and even pragmatic perspective.  You see, as a Brit who’s been living in Ireland for over 10 years, I’ve forgotten the little differences in terms of expression that had stood out to me when I first moved to the country, but that I’ve now adopted in my own speech.  This brought it back to me.  For British people, saying “sorry there” as you move past someone is a little presumptive, and therefore a little rude.  However, to Irish people, it functions perfectly well as an alternative to “excuse me” and doesn’t give or provoke any offence.

It seems, therefore, that when making a small request of someone, Irish people are seeking permission by almost seeking forgiveness.  The ‘permission’ is implicit.  For British people, however, this ‘code’ isn’t there, and a slightly more explicit request is made with “excuse me (please)”.  The implicit meaning of “Sorry there” while moving past someone therefore to a British person becomes an assumption of permission before permission has been given, and offence is subsequently taken.

Of course, in most cases, British people would merely be slightly put out, and probably apologise for being in the way in the first place.  This woman’s response to perceived rudeness was disproportionate, and was perhaps exacerbated by the stressful environment of the crowded museum.  And of course, it’s entirely possible she didn’t hear me saying “sorry there”!

Perhaps I should excuse her.

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