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modern ms manners: why it is important to say ‘excuse me’

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I’ve recently moved to Sydney, and having now recovered from an interstate move, I have been enjoying getting my bearings and learning more about what the city has to offer.

As part of my explorations, I have noticed a few things that I think are Sydney specific. The first is the public transport system, which is (mostly) reliable. The true locals and well-seasoned travellers always seem to know the exact spot to get up on the train so as to still get off in time, without being too early. These locals also seem to defy gravity, as they are able to handle the constant inertia of the train without having to hold onto anything (or perhaps they are better acquainted with the hygiene adopted by locals on trains.)

Personally, I am still what we would call a “peak-too-sooner” – I am so nervous about missing my stop that I get up almost a stop early and have to grab on to a nearby commuter once the train comes to a grinding halt.

But the biggest thing I have noticed is that for a city that holds a little over 4.6 million people all bustling about, no one seems to say ‘excuse me’. You may remember learning this phrase from your childhood – it is the polite cousin to ‘Oi! Move!’ and is generally employed in situations where you need to pass near someone. And yet, for all its rich history, the excuse me phrase seems to have been dropped from the local Sydney lingo.

There are two keys areas I have noticed this:

Supermarket

My fascination with lack of etiquette in supermarkets has already been discussed, but they do get a special mention in the “no excuse me” category.

In my local supermarket, people enjoy hiding behind their trolleys like they aren’t humungous and leaning back across the aisle to see whether the item they want is on the opposing shelf. First up I just want to say this does not denote territory over the entire aisle; sure you might need to stand back to readily identify the brand of tuna that you want because they all look the same, but this is because they are all meant to look the same. (It is smushed fish in can. There are only so many places you can go with that)

So when I need to get by you and don’t want you to think I’m taking this opportunity to rub up on you inappropriately, I am going to say ‘excuse me’. This is really just a polite way of saying ‘you are in my way and if you don’t stand aside I’m going to start brandishing my basket in an irresponsible way.’

So be grateful I just said excuse me.

Walking on the Footpath

It might be useful to remember that no one owns footpaths. They are council property and therefore open to the public to stroll along, trip over on, or set up lemonade stands on as they see fit.

Now I am a determined pedestrian – if I am walking it is generally to get somewhere. You would think this is the same for all people but apparently not. There are some people who seemingly enjoy walking like lost Lemmings on the footpath, with no clear sense of purpose or direction. Which is fine, but you need to get out of my way.

Again, we say ‘excuse me’ here, because it is not acceptable to say ‘if you don’t pick up the pace, toots. I’ll be tempted to knock you in the back of the head.’

The worst is when two pedestrians are facing head on, and my opponent (rightly) considers the fact that I am choosing to stay on the left side of the pavement to be a challenge to his masculinity. Because I am stubborn, the inevitable “mirror dance” ensues where we both duck to the side only to duck back to the same side again.

First of all, let us all recognise that this is silly. This is a silly, silly situation that for all our engineering, humans still manage to get themselves in. And we’re both at fault. So we recognise the silliness, smile and both say ‘excuse me’ as we pass each other. Note, if you don’t say excuse me back, you may provoke an Adam Hills v Joan Rivers type response out of me. Now if you’ll excuse me…

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