August 3, 2010

Excuse me!

One thing I didn't anticipate about moving back to America 10 days ago was that things I got used to in the 7 years I previously lived here could appear like new cultural experiences and misunderstandings.

To wit, I had completely forgotten how Minnesotans drive me insane by saying "excuse me". PLEASE STOP IT.

In New Zealand you do hear people say "excuse me" as a genuine polite acknowledgment of minor social faux pas (burping, reaching too far for the condiments at dinner, stepping into someone's way by accident). But when I heard "excuse me" in New Zealand it was reasonably frequently used by the wronged person—the person who only had to hear the burp, the person who saw another's arm come across their plate on the way to the mustard—as a sarcastic way of indicating that the uncouth person should have acknowledged their bad ways. I think (and I'm no linguist) that people in New Zealand say "sorry" more frequently as an expression of genuine contrition for these kinds of offences.

Soon after arriving back in Minnesota I was in the store, and waiting to turn the trolley/cart out of an aisle. Someone passed in front of me with the right of way (applying road T-junction rules to the supermarket) and said "Excuse me." This was ridiculous because they had the right of way, and I had stopped briefly waiting for them to pass. To say "excuse me" raised my hackles. I felt the rush of annoyance one feels when strangers are rude to you in public without cause. Why, I wondered, are they being so rude and suggesting that I should have apologized when they had the right of way and I was waiting. There have been several other sarcastic Minnesotans since then, saying "excuse me" and obviously prompting me to apologize for my behavior.

Reflecting on each situation, I think they were just trying to be polite. Indeed one of the reasons I think they are being sarcastic in saying "excuse me" is that, to my mind, there's nothing for them to apologize for in the first place! Thus my next instinct is they must be suggesting I did something wrong. So, it would be a lot easier for me if people in Minnesota could just stop saying "excuse me."

Posted by eroberts at August 3, 2010 8:17 AM