IYIP Blog: The Pole Phenomenon: Why Canadians can now stop apologizing for saying “sorry” too much

For those of you who don’t know Swahili, saying “pole” is the equivalent of saying “sorry” in Canadian. Did I say Canadian? Uh…I mean…English. Now, many people know that English-speaking Canadians are notorious for saying “eh” all the time, but not as many know that we also have a reputation for saying “sorry” way too much, and for ridiculous reasons. Example: if you bump into a Canadian, chances are they’ll apologize to you because you bumped into them. Ridiculous, eh? I know. I’ve done it, so you can admit to having done it, too. Canadians are so ridiculous that you’ll even find them apologizing for saying “sorry” when they shouldn’t have said it (ahem…like when they’ve been bumped into by someone). Yup, I’ve done the double “sorry”, too. For shame!

But fear not, fellow Canadians – have I got news for you! Based on six months of intense field research here in Arusha, I have come to the groundbreaking conclusion that Tanzanians say “pole” far more than Canadians say “sorry”. What’s more, they say it for crazier reasons than Canadians do. How do I know the reason that someone has said “pole”? Simple, I ask for an explanation every time I hear it! Picture this:

A Tanzanian passing me on the road says “pole” to me, expecting me to say “asante” (“thank you”) and continue on my merry way, but the linguist in me can’t resist the temptation and I ask “kwa nini?” (“why?”) instead. That’s right, I choose to break a serious politeness rule in order to collect data…

(N.B. Feel free to replicate this simple informal interview technique for your own research purposes.)

Okay, I’ll admit, I haven’t heard anyone apologize for being bumped into by someone else, but still, I thought I’d share the hilarity of The Pole Phenomenon with all of you who have not been lucky enough to experience it live. Now, I’ve compiled a list of the ten most noteworthy instances of The Pole Phenomenon that I’ve come across, but they are not all equally ridiculous/hilarious/perplexing, so I have done my best to rank them in order from least impactful to most impactful. Here it is:

Top 10 Reasons People Say “Pole” to You in Tanzania

10. You’re working

9. You’re carrying something on your head

8. You’re carrying a baby

7. You tripped on a stone which for some reason you hadn’t noticed was sticking about 10cm out of the bumpy road

6. You tripped over your own two feet

5. You’re walking happily, talking/smiling to yourself

4. There’s dust in the air

3. You sneezed

2. You’re left-handed

1. The sun is shining

Sorry if you don’t agree with my rankings…

Pole for your work, Ester – it really looks like you’re suffering! (Ester is Umoja’s cook)

Look at me, carrying a massive pile of wood on my head – that warrants a pole for sure!

Poleni to the poor plants by the side of the road for being so brown and dusty! (Poleni is for when there’s more than one recipient)

If white skin doesn’t attract enough attention, eating with your left hand sure will! Pole to all you lefties!

After six hours of climbing in the dark of night, I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro only to find that the sun had beaten me to it! What did you say, “pole sana”? (“Very sorry”) Oh, asante sana! Thanks so much! I appreciate your sympathy!


Take a look at the ridiculous Serengeti sunset, then say pole to the person beside you.

-Elena Togias, Education Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012


2 thoughts on “IYIP Blog: The Pole Phenomenon: Why Canadians can now stop apologizing for saying “sorry” too much

  1. Hi Elena,

    The picture with the pile of wood on your head brings me back to my village I ( and your father ) was brought up.
    What you decsribe reminds me of my period of life as a child up in the mountain I was born and grown up until the age of 8.
    I am happy and also proud for you. It was a good initiativ that you took to go to Tanzania.
    This experience will help you a lot when you come back to Toronto..

    Panagiotis Togias (from Brussels)

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