Margaret and I were relaxing at the end of a long day in 2016. She was seated on our family room chesterfield, knitting, while I was in the easy chair doing a crossword. Our teenagers had retired to their rooms for the night, watching Netflix or FaceTiming their friends. All was still, except for the hum of our dishwasher and the snores of our golden retriever.
“Ow!” Margaret’s cry broke the calm. She gripped her right hand.
“What is it?” I asked, peering over my reading glasses.
“Ahh,” she winced. “I have a knitting cramp.”
“Why are you apologizing? I didn’t say it was your fault.”
“Oh. Sorry,” I responded reflexively.
“Again? This isn’t about you.” Margaret was sounding a little annoyed.
“Oh, sor—” I started, then I checked myself and regrouped. “I wasn’t trying to take responsibility for your sore hand. I was trying to say that I regret that you have a sore hand.”
“Ah,” she nodded. “Canadian sorry. Why didn’t you say so?” Margaret smiled.
“Because I really did mean sorry. But since you understand that word differently than I do, then I’m sorry we had a misunderstanding.” I put on a Canadian accent so she’d know I was joking. Margaret laughed.
Phew. Conflict averted.
Margaret had recently started characterizing some of my apologies as “Canadian sorry,” since she’d noticed that Canadians are over-apologetic. She wasn’t wrong. Tourist shops in Canada sometimes feature T-shirts displaying a maple leaf and the word “SORRY”. In a 2017 article, “Why do Canadians Apologize So Much?”, writer Emily Keeler observes that Canadians often use “sorry” as a substitute for “excuse me”, as in: “Sorry, could you pass the salt?” Meanwhile, the Urban Dictionary defines “Canadian sorry” as an expression of sympathy “for something that isn’t your fault or you have no control over, such as a friend getting sick or stubbing their toe.” In 2009, the province of Ontario even enacted the Apology Act to clarify that saying sorry doesn’t constitute an “admission of fault or liability.”
Margaret and I hadn’t always been this nimble at diffusing our disagreements. Earlier in our marriage, Margaret would grow frustrated if I over-apologized, and I would retort by clanging the dishes around. And “sorry” wasn’t our only conflict either. Margaret wanted to acquire a weekend getaway near our home in Massachusetts, but I worried that owning a cottage might divert me from spending holidays in Canada. Margaret also worried about my on-again, off-again homesickness back then, and encouraged me to get out more. I suggested that she should acknowledge my nostalgia rather than try to fix it.