I'm Sorry I Killed Your Fish

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Shostakovich's Fifth symphony was published with the tag "A Soviet artist's reply to justified criticism," and was widely seen as an apology to Stalin authorities for his opera Lady Macbeth.

Russian apologies are very different from English ones.

Overwhelmingly the most common way for a Russian to apologise is to say "forgive me": a formulation that demands forgiveness from the listener.

English apologies, by contrast, almost always use the word "sorry": a word full of ambiguity since it expresses regret but not necessarily culpability.

The ambiguity has frequently been exploited by Anglo-Saxon politicians who have apparently apologised for historic wrongs which they were not responsible for.

Poles use the formula: "I apologise" - what linguists call a "a performative" - which is situated somewhere between the English and Russian formula.

Eva Ogiermann from Portsmouth University is a Polish linguist, fluent in all three languages; she has carried out extensive research in how people apologise in the three languages.

In one scenario she asked people how they would apologise for letting a neighbour's pet fish die while supposedly looking after them.

A typical British apology is "Some of your fish died while you were away.

I fed them an everything but turned up one day and some had died" (admitting facts but denying responsibility) or when accepting blame only using careful formulation such as "I think I might not have fed them properly".

Russians and Poles would tend to the more florid, such as "I neglected your fish.

I know now that there is nothing to be done", or "I have not lived up to your trust".

Using many other scenarios, not just fish, Eva Ogiermann constructs a complete typology of apology, and argues that the differences are more than linguistic - they reflect different notions of politeness in the respective cultures.

The British emphasise "negative politeness" - not encroaching on someone else's space.

Russians are far more interested in "positive politeness" - making the hearer feel good about themselves.

Linguist Eva Ogiermann considers how different cultures apologise and what this means.

Shostakovich's Fifth symphony was published with the tag A Soviet artist's reply to justified criticism," and was widely seen as an apology to Stalin authorities for his opera Lady Macbeth.

Overwhelmingly the most common way for a Russian to apologise is to say "forgive me": a formulation that demands forgiveness from the listener.

English apologies, by contrast, almost always use the word "sorry": a word full of ambiguity since it expresses regret but not necessarily culpability.

Poles use the formula: "I apologise" - what linguists call a "a performative" - which is situated somewhere between the English and Russian formula.

A typical British apology is "Some of your fish died while you were away.

I fed them an everything but turned up one day and some had died" (admitting facts but denying responsibility) or when accepting blame only using careful formulation such as "I think I might not have fed them properly".

Russians and Poles would tend to the more florid, such as "I neglected your fish.

I know now that there is nothing to be done", or "I have not lived up to your trust".

The British emphasise "negative politeness" - not encroaching on someone else's space.

Russians are far more interested in "positive politeness" - making the hearer feel good about themselves.