Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Serbs Don't Say "I'm Sorry" the Way Americans Do

"I'm sorry" is not a phrase that trips lightly off the Serb tongue. Serbs do not apologize quickly and easily the way Americans do. It simply never enters their minds. They also may find it odd, of not a bit offensive, when Americans apologize in the course of daily life the way we do.

American apologies come in two categories -- the first is the "Whups by mistake" offense. You may have bumped into someone in the hallway by mistake, be late for a meeting, or double booked a flight so now there are too many passengers for seats. When you say, "I'm sorry", everyone knows you're not totally anguished or anything. But you are at least polite about it, acknowledging other people's feelings.

If you were not to say "I'm sorry" in those circumstances, many Americans would be fairly upset - sometimes more by the lack of an apology as a courtesy than by the actual problem that prompted it.

I've known Serbs, completely unknowingly, to upset and even outrage American clients and co-workers in this manner in international business. It doesn't occur to a Serb that an apology is called for for such a little thing. It doesn't occur to Americans that the Serbs aren't being deliberately impolite.

The second American apology category is the Big Screw Up, often part and parcel of a Big Fight. One person (or both) is shaking with outrage and the other person better darn well ante up an "I'm sorry" in a timely manner or risk seriously damaging the relationship. The apology in this case may just mean, "I've cooled down, I love you, I am extending an olive branch of peace, let's work this out together without crazy emotions." Or it may mean, "I acknowledge I did something terribly wrong, and I regret it. I empathize with your point of view on this, it's my bad. Can you forgive me?"

If this apology is offered American to American, it may well work. If, however, this gesture of reconciliation is offered by an American to a Serb, the Serb's reaction may range from being completely unmoved to becoming even more pissed off.

"If you are sorry, then why did you do the thing in the first place?" wonders the Serb. "Do you think with two little words now that you can wipe out your error from my memory and everything will go back to the way it was before? This is not the Catholic Church, you can't get your sins washed away like they didn't exist just by saying a few words. You Americans are not sincere people, no one who says 'Sorry' so often can really mean it. These are just words without meaning."

Now that our little Serb-American family has been together for three years, my husband has learned to say "I'm sorry" more. (OK, it was twice, but I treasure those two times, deeply.) And I've learned to stop saying "I'm sorry" as a kneejerk reaction so frequently.

Which is fine for us, but the adjustment has screwed up my American-to-American relations. Earlier this year I completely messed up with a close relative. I called her to say she was right, I was wrong. After nearly an hour on the phone she was still fairly upset. Why? "You say you understand and you did the wrong thing," she cried," but you never said I"m sorry!" Whups.

Now I have to learn to adjust my apologies for the culture I'm in.


Anonymous said...

You completely miss the point... You are talking about woman/man "I am sorry", not about American/Serbian way of apologizing...

Anonymous said...

Rosemary, pretty funny post!
I think you should write one on how americans/canadians always greet someone with "Hi, how are you?" -- not giving two shits about how the person really is they are asking, it is just their form of greeting.

How often did it happen someone says Hi How are you and runs off before giving you the chance to ask how you are?

In serbia, people who ask how you are, are genuinely interested in how you are -- so unless they care how you are, they will not ask 'how are you?'


betty said...

There is some truth in it.
But it is hard to avoid generalization...

Anonymous said...

rosemary, there is a lot of truth in these observations. generalizations they may be, but there are also real cultural preferences. this one is common not just to some (abstract?) entity called the serbs, but to most former yugoslavs and many other balkanites as well.

personally, i can't stand it when people in the US expect you to say "i'm sorry" even when you don't mean it, when they expect to hear it from you just because it's part of being nice. i find it emotionally blackmailing.

on the other hand, you can be sure that when i say "i'm sorry", i genuinely mean it.

which is also why i'm still voting for nader and not obama. life is about more than just feeling nice.