Americans apologize quite a bit. Sorry to generalize, but it’s become a reflex for many Americans to say “sorry.” Whether it be for something small, like accidentally not holding a door for someone, or for something big, like accidentally burning someone’s house down, there are so many fitting occasions to apologize.There are a number of factors that go into the American “sorry,” and we won’t dig into all of them. But it’s worth noting, for example, that women are more likely to apologize than men because they’re generally expected to be more polite. There’s also an ongoing debate over how sincere apologies really are. We’re in a cultural moment for apologies, be they sincere or insincere, convincing or not. This made us wonder, does sorry in other languages and countries serve the same purpose?
If you’re learning a new language, you can just learn the exact translation for “I’m sorry,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in every country. We asked people around the Babbel office to find out what the customs for apologizing are in other countries (and included tips on how to say sorry in other languages).
In France, over-apologizing can be read as insincere. If you say “sorry” every time you interrupt someone, or almost bump into them, or accidentally make eye contact with them, it’ll seem like you aren’t really apologetic. You’ll want to save apologies for when you really mean them, and even then you’ll want to keep it short and simple. Going over the top with your apology might make it seem like you don’t really mean it.
What To Say: The exact translation of “I’m sorry” is Je suis désolé, but you can shorten that even more to a simple désolé. In other situations, though, you might want to go with excusez-moi (“excuse me”). For example, excusez-moi can be used when you start speaking to apologize to the listener for not speaking French (which is an apt time to apologize in France).
Russia is another country in which you might want to tone down your apologies. If you accidentally do something rude, then a brief apology will be welcomed, but you shouldn’t be saying “sorry” every few seconds. You can also use the Russian terms for “excuse me” when you’re trying to show politeness to a stranger.
What To Say: In Russian, how you apologize is going to depend on who you’re apologizing to. The more formal version is извините, or izvinite, which means “excuse me.” If you’re in a more informal setting, you can use прости, or prosti, which is more like “forgive me” or “sorry.” If you’re speaking to a group of people or people you don’t know, you’ll want to go with the more formal version. To up the politeness, throw in a пожалуйста, or pozhalujsta, meaning “please.”
Our fellow English-speakers in the United Kingdom are pretty much on the same page as Americans when it comes to apologizing. In fact, they say “sorry” even more, with one study finding British people using “sorry” 50 percent more than Americans. If you’re ever even a little uncertain if you’ve offended someone in some way, it can’t hurt to throw out a “sorry.”
What To Say: Sticking with your American apology lexicon probably won’t hurt you much in the United Kingdom. Beyond using “pardon” from time to time, there’s not much difference between the British and Americans (at least on this issue).
In Sweden, apologizing is normal, but once again scaled back a bit from the American way. You’ll definitely want to apologize, for example, if you’re late for something. (Punctuality is key in Sweden.) Another interesting point is that Swedish doesn’t have any good equivalent of a sympathy “sorry,” so you can’t say “sorry for your loss,” but instead have to go with Jag är ledsen, which basically means “I’m sad [for you].”
What To Say: In many situations, you can use Jag ber om ursäkt (“I apologize”) or the shorter Ursäkta (“Excuse me”). For a slightly stronger apology, you might want to go with Förlåt, which means “Forgive me.” And as mentioned above, Jag är ledsen doubles as both “I’m sad” and “I’m sorry.”
Germans tend to be accused of being “rude” because they don’t necessarily apologize as profusely as people in other countries. But that perceived rudeness is actually just them being honest and not feeling the need to overdo politeness. Apologies in Germany should be simple, straightforward and honest. While in the United States you might from time to time slip into a white lie about why you’re late — the traffic was bad! the subways weren’t running! — you’ll do better in Germany to put forward a simple apology and then move on. Admitting fault is generally much better than getting caught in a silly lie.
What To Say: The most common “I’m sorry” in German is Es tut mir leid, which will work in a number of situations. Other times, you might want to use Entschuldigung, which can be used either as an apology or an “excuse me.”