I don’t know about you but I was always taught to say “Excuse me.” The phrase still exists in some contexts such as “Excuse me if I remove my shoes” or “Excuse me yawning” or “Excuse me I have to leave now.”
But the overriding and predominant meaning of the phrase throughout my childhood and early adulthood was “Please could I come past.”
The trouble with not being able to spot unwritten rules is that you also can’t see when time and culture choose to permanently erase or rewrite them.
Now when people want to come past they tap you on the shoulder. Either that or they just stand behind you waiting for you to move or someone else has to alert you to their presence. Part of me thinks I should have seen this coming when anytime I used the phrase circa my college years, I would be greeted in a London yoof culture accent with “Why, what you done?” Now when *I* say “Excuse me” meaning “Could I come past?” people stand there unresponsive until I clarify for them.
Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe the EM phrase in that context is being relegated alongside all the dusty old Victorian books that laid down the law about what was considered to be good etiquette. I wonder what’s next for the chop.
In closing I’ll regale you with a memory. In 2005 I was in a pub in St Albans one evening waiting for the weekly music quiz to begin. In the narrow gap between the bar and the dining tables, a man stood nursing his drink. Right where I wanted to come through and make my way to where I normally sat and waited for my teammate to arrive.
“Excuse me.” No response.
I said it again. Still no response.
Well if he wasn’t going to respond to that then I’d just have to do what I hated having done to me and tap his shoulder out of the blue.
So I tapped him on the shoulder. He stood there motionless.
There was only one thing for it. I would have to shove past him. So I pushed him against the bar. Right up close as if he were enjoying intimate relations with the woodwork. Well what else could I do?
Naturally the man expressed annoyance. “And don’t tap me on the shoulder either!” he added crossly.
“Well you didn’t respond when I said “Excuse me”” I protested.
“Yeah well I didn’t hear you cos I’m deaf.”
There’s just no pleasing some people.