When this first happened, I responded with, “Oh no, you’re fine!” since this is usually a typical response whenever someone tells me, “Sorry.”
It happened again, shortly therafter, and I looked at him strangely.
“Why do you keep saying sorry every time I cough?”
“Because I’m sorry for you. Not sorry as in apologizing, but sorry as in sympathy.”
This led to a fascinating conversation where I learned that in his native language, there is a word – pele – which people say every time someone coughs or sneezes. It’s meant to express sympathy and support.
The closest English translation for it, though, is “sorry.” I started teasing him every time he said sorry: “Do you mean sympathy sorry or sorry sorry?”
Then we got married (a lot later!) and went to his home country shortly after our honeymoon. I unfortunately developed a cold there, and a cough accompanied it.
One day I started coughing, and my husband’s sister (sitting next to me) said, “Sorry!”
“Oh no, you’re fine!” I responded automatically. Then I reconsidered. “Uh … I mean, thanks.”
She went off into a peal of laughter. “I don’t mean sorry sorry! I mean I’m sorry that you’re coughing! Pele!”
This took some getting used to, and I started coughing delicately just to test people’s reactions. “Sorry!” they said immediately, but they didn’t even bother looking up. It was just like a “Bless you!” after someone sneezes.
Once I got into a coughing spasm when the whole family was gathered in the living room.
“Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” everyone chirped in a chorus of sympathy. I started laughing, but nobody knew why. 😉
Now that I incidentally have a cold this week, I kind of miss the “Sorry!” that used to accompany every time I coughed. It made me feel … well, important. And listened to.
And I have to stop myself from saying, “Sorry!” every time I hear a cough. Otherwise people will start looking at me strangely.