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Excuse Me?!

Have you ever noticed how flexible the phrase “Excuse me” is? All based on body language, voice inflection, and current context it can have more meanings then I could list. Broadly, the more common usage it is rather submissive as you beg someone to forgive you for your imperfections. While in another almost as common usage you let someone know that their imperfections have offended you and they should correct the situation. And both of these circumstances have a wide range of variations.

For example, lets say you are at a party (I know this might be a stretch for some, but stay with me). You are in a crowded room with lots of talking. You see someone you want to talk to on the other side of the room and you start moving towards them. Someone is in your way. You say “Excuse me” to politely let them know that you wish to humbly ask them to move as you so rudely want to reposition yourself through their personal space. The don’t move. So you say “Excuse me” again to let them know that you find their lack of moving rude. They still don’t move. This time you say “Excuse me” to indicate that you find them to be a Neanderthal not worthy of your patience. Now they respond “Excuse me?” to indicate they didn’t understand you. So you point in the direction you are trying to move and they kindly step aside. You continue on your journey, but accidentally step on their toe, to which they protest “Excuse me!” and you apologize “Excuse me!”

These are dangerous words. You may be trying to ask someone to move nicely, but you have a bit of a frog in your throat making your voice a little gruff so they get the impression you are demanding they move. And then when you clear your throat and repeat it you only make matters worse.

I would imagine that with some hand pointing, voice inflection and other body language two people could have a complete unrehearsed conversation only uttering these two words.

One time I was attending a public forum where individuals would take turns standing up and expressing their opinion. There was no podium, people just stood up where they were and took turns. Usually there was some sort of informal recognition before people spoke, but people were taking turns, so this wasn’t really necessary. At one point this woman just started speaking, and then this man interrupted her. They both started speaking close to the same time, so his mistake was understandable to the rest of the audience, but the woman was obviously speaking first. They spoke over each other for a second, and then the man turned to the woman and said “Excuse me.” At first we thought he was apologizing for his obvious oversight in interrupting her. Then he continued to talk. At that point we realized that he was not apologizing, but was instead letting her know that she should sit down and let him talk. This didn’t go over very well with the audience, but he didn’t care.

This is where lack of social intelligence comes in. People who don’t pick up on these subtle cues in body language and voice inflection tend to appear really rude, but in fact they just don’t get it. Although some people really are rude. It can be hard to tell.

Moral: And that, my friends, is one of the many reasons it is so tough to teach a computer to understand English, especially when spoken. I am not too familiar with other languages, but I imagine they are similar, but not as bad.

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