Shaun Keavny’s programme on Radio 6 include people contacting him to tell of strange situations when they had apologised for their actions, even when no apology was necessary or even appropriate. One person spoke of apologising to the dishwasher when they had inadvertently opened it during the wash cycle. Another listener told of how his grandmother had apologised to a cake when she had opened the oven to check its progress and had discovered that it was not yet cooked.
Saying “sorry” is a national habit, there seems an instinctive inclination to apologise, even when it is not our fault. It is a trait that is used with comic effect in the American comedy film National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
The film features an American family travelling around Europe, spreading a trail of chaos and destruction wherever they go. In each city they visit they cause some grave misfortune to an English tourist played by Eric Idle, and each time the Englishman apologises, how careless of him to be in the way of their car when they ran him over, and so on. It never occurs to the Englishman to think that he has no need to say “sorry”.
Idle’s character is a caricature of Englishness, but it emphasises that the default response in most situations is to say “sorry.” Apologising to the dishwasher and to the cake arise from a long tradition of politeness.
Studying the Tudors with the Year 7 students, we learned about Elizabethan England. Elizabeth successfully fudged and blurred the country to the point where there were no more religious wars. The attitude to religion that Elizabeth encouraged depended upon politeness, of being wary about causing offence. The Church of England became an institution where people who held disparate and sometimes contradictory beliefs could feel that they belonged, that the church was a tradition broad enough to encompass their wide spectrum of traditions.
Being a people who whose approach was to say “sorry” sprang our of a mood of intolerance towards extremism. Elizabeth would be tolerant of most things, what she would not tolerate was intolerance. Saying “sorry” for any imagined slight meant that you were not entrenched in your attitude toward those around you, if social relationships were better fostered by apologising even when it was unnecessary to do so, then a word of contrition is acceptable.
It is not a large step to take to move from being non-assertive in religious attitudes to apologising for absurd things.