The Complexity of “Excuse Me”: Politeness Analyzed

Polite customs are best observed among strangers. One of the major hubs of stranger interaction is the grocery store, which tends to be overcrowded with hungry people who move at different speeds. Some only stick to eight items or less so they can express check their way out of there. Others take their time, thinking, “Should I get the orange juice with or without pulp?” “What’s the difference between ricotta cheese and cottage cheese?” “Ooo, Dunkaroos are on sale! Better get a second cart.”

In such a space, with its narrow aisles, giant fruit stands and cookie sales, people are going to need to get past each other. Typically, when a person is trying to get past another without violently shoving them, threatening them or yelling at them, they tend to resort to one of two polite sayings: “Sorry” or “Excuse Me.”

But there appears to be the growing and popular third option: making sounds. As one person begins to squeeze past another, they may squeal an: “Oooop!”, “Boooop!”, “Merrrrp!”, “Eeeeekkk!” “Mmmmmm!”, “Ahhhhhhhh!” and most puzzlingly “Oops!”

This may have happened to you, or someone you love. You may have even done this yourself. No matter, it leaves us all asking the same question: Why? (Especially “Oops” – that is just downright confusing! How dare you!)

After extensive field research, the use of these dolphin-like sounds does not appear to be rooted in rudeness. Here are two theories:

1) Fear of Misusing “Sorry”: Canadians in particular are notorious for misusing “sorry” as they are constantly using it in place of “Excuse Me” or “Hey Buddy, watch where you’re going.” You may have even found yourself saying “Sorry” to a fellow shopper, even though they are the ones who heartlessly pushed you into the pineapples. And those things will draw blood!

You see, politeness can hurt if we misuse it, so maybe we should begin to realize our abuse of “sorry” and try to avoid using it if out of context. Because let’s be honest, we’re not usually “sorry” for having to get by someone. They’re in the way! Mindlessly running their shopping carts into produce displays because they haven’t learned how to walk and text.

2) The Effects of Sarcasm & Sass: Politeness, much like anything, can be butchered by sarcasm, eye rolls and air quotes. A “sorry” for example, can be insulting based on the delivery and become a sarcastic apology. An anti-apology. A sarpology.

E.g: “Sawwwwreeeeeeeeuuhhhh” or “I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me…but I can’t help it that I’m popular.”

While “sorry” can be equated with inauthenticity, when used correctly it conveys a proper apology. “Excuse me”, on the other hand, for some reason appears to be more tightly linked with sass, provocation and impatience.

E.g: “Excuse me [young man/lady, boyfriend/girlfriend, neighborhood nemesis], what did you just say to me?! Oh you’ve done it now!”

In conclusion, it seems that some of us are paranoid of using “sorry” out of context and afraid of using “excuse Me” because it can be interpreted as harsh and impolite. Our polite saying is now impolite and, without a suitable replacement, we crumble into mumbling noisemakers.

This is inexcusable!

We need to either reclaim the politeness of “excuse me,” stop tiptoeing around “sorry”, or come up with a brand new expression to be used when we need to get past someone. You know, like how Jerry began to replace “God Bless You” with “You are so good looking.”

In the same vein, I propose a gentler way to say “excuse me”, here it is: “Excuse me, I need to get to the cookies.” You don’t even need to be in the grocery store for this to make sense, it works in any and all contexts. Cookies are important, yet non-threatening. People will totally understand.

Featured image via Shutterstock