Indians, generally speaking, don’t say “sorry”. If we’re late, we are nonchalant and breezy about it. If we don’t do something we were supposed to do, we talk about unrelated things that we have done, as irrelevant as they may be to what was expected of us. Where Westerners find myriad situations in a day in which to apologize, Indians, it seems, are totally oblivious to all of them.
I have scratched my head about this for a long time. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m Indian. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time absorbed in other cultures, enough to make me feel like a stranger in my own land. When I look around at the behaviour of friends, family, colleagues and strangers on the street, I see glaring instances that feel rude, inconsiderate and thoughtless much of the time.
Yet, I know that Indians are not a rude people. They are actually amongst the most considerate and generous-spirited people on the planet. Riders freely share their lunch with each other on a join train ride, turning it into a spontaneous picnic. Wedding hosts warmly welcome invited guests plus another ten more uninvited friends without fuss. Grocers let you take your groceries home without paying if you happen to not have the money. In India, in small and large towns, people go out of their way to accommodate you.
The omission of apologies is also not out of ignorance. Indians are well-exposed to Western culture, well enough to be familiar with the expression of apology and how it is used. Hollywood is widely prevalent, and Western tv serials command a huge following. Indians hear characters say sorry in sitcoms and dramas, for every possible banal situation one can think of.
So what gives?
It turns out that I have been approaching this conundrum in completely the wrong way. I have been looking at it from a rational perspective, assuming a certain set of norms to be in place. This has been a grossly wrong assumption.
The whole issue lies in the fact that this is a cultural thing. “Sorry” is a culturally inappropriate term in the Indian context.
As a culture, we just don’t have anything equivalent to this everyday apology. In the vernacular languages, the words that do convey regret or remorse are grave and weighty, far more serious than is typically the need of a “sorry”. For example, take”kshama”, which translates to forgiveness. When someone asks for “kshama”, it is more like pleading for mercy. Picture a thief or a murderer, flogged, clothes torn, sobbing and brought to his knees, begging for forgiveness from a higher authority. It’s a bit misplaced to ask for “kshama” if you forgot to get the milk. Given the inappropriateness of the terms at our disposal, we just don’t say sorry.
I can understand this for the places where English is still not widely used. What about the bigger cities? in the 21st century, every vernacular language seems to have borne a hybrid baby, incorporating English into the language until it has become close to impossible to speak a sentence without at least one English word in it. In these cities, then, why is “sorry” still not said?
Well, while the language may have expanded to include the English word “sorry” in the dictionary, the culture is still Indian. Indians don’t see themselves as clearly carved individuals in the same way as Westerners. The space between an Indian and her world is blurred, so much so that she and the world are one. Distance is not adhered to nor valued – this is apparent in the physical, where we crowd each other all the time with no sense of personal space or boundaries. It is the same with emotional space – we don’t see any between us and others, especially those with whom we are acquainted and in friendship. If we are one, then how does it make sense to apologize to oneself?
Another point that sheds light is the Indian belief in service. This may be a predominantly Hindu thing, but it feels all pervasive, this philosophy of existing to serve, to fulfill our duty. Dharma. We are born to carry out a certain role, and we go through life trying to do it to the best of our abilities. Hence, if the intent is pure, why would one need to apologize for any shortcoming? It is accidental, without malice. The thinking goes, I have not set out with the intent to injure, or disappoint, or let you down. So, no apology required.
I read about this on Quora, in various answers. One, in particular, was incredibly enlightening to me, by Dushyant Chauhan. I want to quote his eloquent explanation:
“One needs to understand that personal relations and even day to day ones in India are not based on formalities.
In India, generally, people have this inbuilt sense of understanding and duty. What I mean is we understand that someone will not shove you deliberately and it’s only an accident so when the intentions of the other person is not to hurt you then there is no need for him or her to say sorry.
…There are very less formalities in India but what is present is a high amount of natural understanding.”
A high amount of understanding, yes. This is a good thing, one that other cultures and societies should consider adopting. If there is one thing wrong with our world today, it’s the lack of understanding and empathy for others.
In the spirit of understanding, however, I guess I have a question. In modern India, which is increasingly growing into a cosmopolitan place, with diversity on everything possible, can there be an understanding for some people’s need to hear “sorry”?