Any student of Shakespeare will tell you that English is a living language. Words and phrases go in and out of style. Sometimes they become archaic and then get resurrected several generations later. Sometimes things that used to be acceptable in polite conversation become faux pas.
I was reflecting on the evolving nature of English recently when it occurred to me that very few people say “excuse me” politely anymore. Now, to be clear, you can still hear it when someone belches loudly, but in a setting where someone needs to move past someone else, “excuse me” has almost completely flown the coop of our collective lexicon.
You’ve probably experienced this before whether or not you were aware of it. You’re standing in the grocery store completely engrossed, searching for something that you need or want. There it is! You get your item and stand up to move along your way, when suddenly you realize you’ve been blocking the progress of another customer. They didn’t ask permission to pass, and they didn’t alert you to their presence. They simply stood by quietly, waiting for you to finish. “Oh! I’m sorry!” you say. “You’re fine,” they reply. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but it happens to me all the time here in Central Texas.
When I really thought about it, I realized that I have pretty much dropped “excuse me” from my own vocabulary. When I’m trying to get through a crowd, I’ll muster my most pleasant voice and say, “Pardon me,” or “Sorry, I’m just trying to get through here, thanks!”, which usually works just fine. But I never say “excuse me.”
When and why did we abandon “excuse me”? I sense that the general feeling is that it’s more polite to simply stand and wait than to ask permission to move past. It can become exasperating, though, if the person blocking your path doesn’t notice your presence and continues to stand for excessive periods of time. It seems we, as a society, have begun to rely on each other’s peripheral vision to alert one another of our presence.
Of course, “excuse me” isn’t solely used as a polite request for permission to move. It has other meanings. It can be used as a challenge in an argument. Someone says something accusatory and you respond with an angry, “Excuse me?!” Then there’s the sarcastic “excuse me” made popular by Steve Martin in his 1977 stand-up comedy album Let’s Get Small. That one sounds like this, “ExCUUUUUUse ME!”
The last time I can remember someone saying “excuse me” to me, it was clearly meant to be confrontational. I brought my family to a Cracker Barrel for dinner. We entered the store, and immediately my daughter found something amazing that she had to have. We were standing there discussing it (and apparently blocking the door) when a curt, irritated sounding “excuse me,” came over my shoulder, and a woman tried to shove past us. I grabbed my daughter and darted out of the way as she huffed out the door into the parking lot. I thought to myself, “If you’re going to say it like that, why say it at all? You might as well just bark ‘Move!'”
That’s the crux of this whole issue. Perhaps the confrontational and sarcastic intonation of the phrase has supplanted the sincere. Are we more afraid of being misinterpreted as rude when in reality we’re trying to be polite? Have the rude among us officially usurped the formerly amiable request of “excuse me”?
According to The Nonverbal Group, a study conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian concluded that only 7 percent of communication is encapsulated in the actual words we speak. 38 percent of communication is conveyed through “vocal elements”(such as tone of voice), and 55 percent is through body language such as facial expressions. Since this is the case, we should be able to ask permission to move past someone by saying “excuse me” with a friendly tone of voice and facial expression. But we choose not to. Maybe “excuse me” has moved beyond the aid of nonverbal communication.
While people from my generation will likely follow up “pardon me” with “do you have any Grey Poupon?”, it still beats standing there getting progressively angrier as your presence is not picked up in the peripheral vision of a human roadblock. So perhaps we should start a trend of doing an interpretive dance to make ourselves larger and therefore more visible. Or maybe we should just speak up.