Elton John wrote a song called “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”. He wouldn’t fit in around here. I wrote a post the other day about apologies, and a rather curious thing started to happen. People commenting on the post began claiming to be geographically sorry. Canada is a little remorseful. Australia is quite embarrassed and promises never to do it again. But the champions are the English. They are completely mortified and will do whatever they can to make it up to you.
My sense of patriotism began to stir. You are all just a bunch of amateurs. South Africa is the sorriest place on earth! If we don’t say sorry at least three times in every conversation we have, we are exiled to Perth, Toronto or London to learn the basics before being allowed back in.
But then I began to think about it. We aren’t the sorriest. We don’t even crack the nod for the semi-finals. Because most of the time we are not sorry at all. That word just means something different here. Or a few different things. Or nothing at all. Allow me to demonstrate.
A married couple is sitting in a restaurant, poring over their menus. After a moment, a waiter ambles up.
“Sorry, are you guys ready to order?”
Unfortunately, the man has been playing with his steak knife, and didn’t hear him properly.
“I was just ask…..”
The steak knife has slipped between the silly buggers fingers, impaling itself in the top of his foot and severing some small but remarkably productive veins.
The noise and the bright, shiny colours are enough to attract a small crowd. Suddenly a large, grey haired man approaches and begins to jostle his way to the front.
“Sorry. I’m a doctor. Let me through. Sorry.”
As he removes the sodden shoe and tries to staunch the flow of blood, the waiter looks down sadly and shakes his head.
Nobody in that little scene was apologetic at all. Nobody even did anything to anyone else. But everyone was very sorry. Not “sorry” sorry, but “I wasn’t part of this conversation and now I’m going to start talking” sorry. “I beg your pardon, I didn’t catch what you said” sorry. “Get out of my way” sorry. “That looks bloody sore” sorry.
And when we really want to express remorse? We blame it on apartheid and move swiftly along.
Lying in bed later that night, I began to think about this. What other words do we use in a way that leaves the rest of the world a little confused? Not South African words, like pap, or eish!, or bliksem, but words than any English speaker in the world would think they recognised, but just don’t work the same round here. I found a few.
Picture the scene. You are a man (How cool is that! All of a sudden you can read maps, but you don’t know how to replace a roll of toilet paper when the old one is finished). You are standing at the front door, keys in hand, looking down at your watch. You turn to the open bedroom door.
“It’s time to go, Honey. The traffic was fairly bad this evening, and this is a very important dinner.”
“Don’t worry,” comes a cheerful response from the depths of the bathroom, “I’ll be there now.”
If you live anywhere else in the world, you can let out a sigh of relief. You’re going to make it. If you live in South Africa, go and pour yourself a drink. Start a game of solitaire on your phone. Because in that context, now does not mean now. It means later. If the people fixing your car say it’s going to be ready “just now”, go and find yourself a coffee shop. And if you call your son in for supper and he says he’s coming “now now”, it may be time to rethink your policy on corporal punishment, because that means the little bugger isn’t coming at all.
How is it?
Or rather howzit. Strictly speaking, this means “how are you?” But under no circumstances should you tell the kind enquirer how you are. That would be very rude. The only acceptable response is “Howzit.” There is no question here. That’s just how we say hello.
If you think you are now ready for a simple South African greeting ceremony, you aren’t. We might still catch you out with a simple “Howzit. How are you?” The only acceptable response here is “Fine, and you?” You can be lying in a ditch, covered in blood, with a broken bone sticking up through the skin of your forearm, and the correct response is still “Fine, and you?” One more “Fine”, and the formalities will be taken care of, and you can move on to discussing your dire need for an ambulance.
Everywhere else in the world, shame is a bad thing. It is a negative emotion, shot through with guilt and embarrassment. Not here. Here it is a sweet thing to say to someone going through a bad time. In the scenario above, once you have both established that you are fine, the South African might get round to asking what happened.
“I was riding my bike round the corner,” you might say, “when a marriage guidance councillor chased a goat into the road. I swerved to avoid him (the goat, not the marriage guidance councillor), but I lost track of the road and found this ditch instead. And then a one-legged mugger took one of my shoes.”
“Oh.” The South African will say, and then pause to mull over your predicament. “Shame.”
It’s an expression of sympathy. It’s what we say to people who are getting a divorce because their marriage guidance councillor ran off after a goat, or who failed their exams, or caught a tropical disease.
But it’s not only that. It’s what we say when you show us a puppy. Or your new baby. As you hold her up in the crook of your arm, snuggled down in a nest of blankets, the South African will look you in the eye and say “She’s just beautiful.”
Then he will look down at her, and stretch out a finger to place in her tiny hand, and his face will break into a goofy smile, and he will say, quietly, more to himself than anyone else “Shame.” Do not be offended. This is a good thing.
If you are talking to a South African, and present him with a bald fact, like “A One-legged mugger stole one of my shoes.” You might find yourself rewarded with the response “Is it?” Yes. Yes it is. The South African knows that it is. You don’t need to tell him that it is. He is just expressing mild surprise.
If you ask for directions here, you are sure to be told something like “Go straight down the road until you reach the first robot, then turn right.” Do not be alarmed. A robot is just a traffic light. And it probably won’t even be working.
There are others, too. If a South African asks you to give them a tinkle, you are not dealing with some horrifying pervert. They just want you to phone them. If they ask you for a rubber, take a deep breath and pass them the eraser, and you’ll be just fine. If they tell you they are going to flog their goat, don’t call the SPCA. They are just going to sell it. Probably to a marriage guidance councillor.
That’s just a start. But you should be just about ready to talk to one of us without fear of embarrassment now. Just don’t take anything for granted or you might just come unstuck. If a South African says he’s going to scale your ladder just now, don’t just say “is it”. Lock it away. He’s going to steal it. He’ll probably try to flog it at the robots later, and that would be a shame. Sorry.