Coming from England, I have the habit of saying ‘sorry’ even when someone has run over my foot with a truck. So, when I found out we were moving to Holland (sorry, the Netherlands) earlier this year, one of the first words I wanted to look up was ‘sorry’ in Dutch. On my flight over I rapidly flicked through the little pocket book of Dutch I’d bought at the airport. Amongst how to order a coffee and ask for the bill, I was amused and perplexed to find that ‘sorry’ was also ‘sorry’ in Dutch.

I soon realised, however, that the Dutch don’t really say it. As an Australian friend of mine once said ‘there are no sorrys in sport’. For the Dutch there are no sorrys in life. There really is no equivalent word for the English ‘sorry’. Yes, they have lots of other ways of sort of saying ‘sorry’ (for example ‘het spijt me’, meaning ‘it displeases me’), but none of them really amount to the same thing.

Dutch kids

Sorry Johan, but I am about to hit you.

What happens if you say ‘sorry’ in Dutch?

In fact, using the word ‘sorry’ in Dutch is one of the quickest ways of being found out as a foreigner. No matter how good your ‘ja, alstublieft’, ‘nee hoor’, and ‘dank u wel’ is in the queue at Albert Heijn, as soon as you say ‘sorry’, a Dutch person will almost invariably switch to English. I’ve even tried rapidly following it up with ‘wat zeg je?’, but it never works. Where an English person says sorry, a Dutchman never would.

As I have come to realise after my first six months in the Netherlands, language tells you a lot about a country and its culture, and the lack of a word for ‘sorry’ is linked to that famed Dutch directness that you’ve heard so much about. If you’ve lived here for any length of time, though, you come to understand that it is a far more subtle and complex notion than just being direct for the sake of it.

So why don’t they say ‘sorry’?

And, perhaps even more perplexing for an Englishman, why don’t they queue? Of course the answer is that they do, when it’s necessary. But if something can be achieved quicker and more efficiently without queuing, then they do that. And this is what lies behind the lack of ‘sorry’. When you think about it, it doesn’t serve a purpose. Why say it at all, unless you really have just run over someone’s foot with a truck?

The catch is, of course, that when the English say ‘sorry’, they never really mean it. There’s always a big gulf between what they say and what they mean (this is what makes English comedy so good). If you bump into someone and they say ‘sorry’, they’re not actually apologising. It’s more like an interjection, an ‘oh!’, than a genuine expression of sorrow. Like the Dutch, then, the English aren’t really sorry, but they just say they are. Adjusting to this new reality is only one of the many challenges of living in a new country, but once you begin to see beneath the surface you might realise that we’re not so different after all. Sorry!

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