Looking Forward

I am walking along a busy sidewalk and a man barrels by, close enough to jostle me and another woman. “Skyewz me,” he barks, not looking at us or anyone else.

I am on line at the grocery. The man in front of me, who is holding a baby, has forgotten something. So he turns, walks toward the space I happen to occupy, says “Skyewz me!” and plows on. I step aside to keep from being knocked over.

When I go home, I ponder.

Both men looked normal—that is, not like criminals, firefighters rushing to a blaze, or politicians. Both were rude, and both were average in their use of the words “excuse me.” By which I mean, like a lot of people, they have turned the phrase into a command, when it used to be a request.

Neither acted like a gentleman, but then I don’t think many of us expect men on the street to be gentlemen anymore. For years now we’ve been telling men not to treat women as if they were weak and frail, not to patronize them as if they were inferior. And men, who are occasionally—in Princess Diana’s phrase—“thick as a plank,” took this to mean they were being told to be rude. Well, they’ve certainly come through!

Of course, women, too, are bad with “excuse me.”

The phrase used to hold within it an unspoken sentence: “Will you excuse me, please?” It was a soft-toned question followed by gentle-toned gratitude: “Thank you.” Sometimes the phrase was even accompanied by a smile that said, “Aren’t you the nicest person to let me bump into you and not get mad?”

It seems to me that we have turned “excuse me” into a snarly command, SKYEWZ me, that carries within it an unspoken sentence: “Get out of my way,” or “Move it, buster.”

I am of the school that manners are morals, that you pour coffee for the other person first because you have made a moral decision to honor others, show interest in them and concern for them. This is part of what football great Gale Sayers was referring to when he called his memoir I Am Third. His philosophy of life was that God is first in importance, you are second, I am third.

This is a profoundly modest and self-denying attitude with which to approach life. It says, “I am not a big deal, I’m just another child of God, how can I help you?” And it is profoundly at odds with modern thinking about Who We Are and What We Deserve.

I lately get the impression that people now understand that when they are courteous—when they let the pushy person cut ahead of them in line, when they react with forbearance to the boisterous teenagers or the snapped demand of the clerk—they are perceived not as polite and kind, but as weak.

And this may be because the social movements of the past quarter century have, though not deliberately, suggested that patience and kindness are the refuge of the spineless. Feminism taught us to instruct men on their failings, the civil rights movement taught us to point out one another’s dishonesty, 12-step programs told us how to find and point the finger at enablers. All these movements had considerable goodness at their core. But in their insistence on one’s rights as preeminent, they also inadvertently encouraged us to be less sensitive, rougher.

We are told: Be strong. If you have adequate self-esteem, understand your rights, have no hesitation about asserting yourself—you will insistently point out that you were ahead of that guy on line, correct the harried clerk, embarrass the rowdy teenagers.
Well, we certainly are strong. We know our rights. We sure do assert them. “Skyewz me,” we say as we barrel past each other, our eyes on the horizon, our concentration unbroken.

We all love justice, but I can’t help thinking it would be an easier country if we all loved mercy.

I wish we would remember that rudeness isn’t a strength, but evidence of an inability or unwillingness to think of others—which is a weakness. Rudeness isn’t authentic, it’s egocentric make way for me, I’m more important than you.

I wish that more of us would think, I Am Third. And turn “excuse me” back into a request, a humble one, with thanks when it is granted.

If I have offended you with my arguments, please excuse me. I mean it.