Let me tell you about one of the most underrated etiquette skills that I encounter on the daily. Grown ups who ought to know better are some of the worst offenders.
Hint – it’s not just what you say. It’s how you say it.
Never underestimate how tone of voice can influence the meaning of your words.
I will never forget this particular lecture in Mass Communications 102 my freshman year at Alabama. As we settled into our seats, we saw what Dr. Hanily had written on the board in big fat dry-erase marker:
I did not share a bed with your sister.
She then called on nine volunteers, and had each student recite one of the nine words. Each time she repeated the exercise, a student emphasized a different word. Every iteration implied something more awkward than the one before it, and we laughed our ever-loving heads off, while also understanding exactly what it was she aimed to teach us that day.
Tone counts for a whole heckuva lot.
Yet I encounter so many people every single day who either don’t understand this or worse, don’t care. Like the other weekend, when we were shopping at The Impeccable Pig. It’s already a small store, square-footage wise, with most every corner merchandised up and just not a lot of room to move around.
A rather huffy woman was ferreting various frocks back to the dressing room for her daughter, who was giving off the same “get out of my air space” vibes.
I was looking at a pair of earrings (the pink hoops you told me were fabulous and that I ended up buying that day). Apparently I was in mama’s way, because although I literally had nowhere else to stand, on one of her return trips from the dressing room, I could sense her hovering, the air thick around her with the unmistakable stench of self-importance.
“Excuse me,” she said coolly, not even bothering to make eye contact.
No “please.” No, “pardon me, I know it’s tight quarters, but may I slip by?”
Just an attitude oozing all the worst old money vibes of “I’m better than you. Recognize my status and step aside, peasant.” Or worse – new money vibes and not carrying herself with the class that one would expect from a person of privileged means.
Yes yes, this is also another blog post for another day. Money don’t buy class, sis (double negative very much intended), and for all the examples I will share with you that prove this point, oh let me count the ways!
As for the tone you choose to use, my child, there will be plenty of chances (every day that you are around other human beings in fact) to behave better than the display we saw that day at the shop.
That’s a bunch of bologna in my book. If anything, leading with an “I’m sorry, but” can help diffuse any potential tension. When used sincerely and with the right tone, it can even put people at ease, communicating that you’re about to make a request of them that is as harmless as it is easy to accommodate.
“I’m sorry but may I please get over to the spice area?” Useful when a fellow grocery shopper is in their own oblivious world and does not realize their cart is fully blocking the one section of the supermarket aisle you desperately need to reach.
“I’m sorry but I need to jump up there where my family is waiting; we got separated in the crowd.” Useful anytime you’re in a queue, be it at Hawaiian Falls or Disney or the flippin’ State Fair, or good gracious, Costco on any given Saturday.
And it doesn’t have to be “I’m sorry” if you find that phrase irksome. But it does have to be respectful. “Pardon me”, “forgive the interruption,” and even “I know this is annoying to ask” also work well.
I’ve gotten all sorts of people to be accommodating, even in super stressful situations (like when security is at a standstill at the airport and I’m about to miss my flight). Try acting like a tone-deaf diva then, when the fate of you making it home before midnight lies in the hands of 30 some odd also cranky travelers, who you are hoping to bypass in a line that is slow as Methuselah.
For now, it makes me incredibly proud to listen when you say “May I please order?” in the Starbucks line, and to hear you say it with sincere warmth, appreciation and courtesy for the barista.
That’s the way you treat others.