What is British for ‘Excuse Me’? Hint: You might be better off being telepathic

Posted on December 1, 2010 by peacefulyorkshire


One could easily complain about the extortionate cost. The smells. The urine on the toilet floor and no loo roll. The lack of seats available to rest your weary body.  But note!! None of the above is what this niggly post is about*. So what am I on about? My commuting train to Leeds where some British folk have a non-verbal way of telling you to move.

Can I read these Brit minds? Am I  telepathic? No!! But, It would help because usually I get it wrong. I experience this on a regular basis on my train: There are no words uttered by my seat companion when they would like me to move when I am  in the way. The British native on the seat usually squirms,  shuffles their bum to and fro, and fiddles with their purse. If you are sitting in the aisle seat, you are expected to read these non verbal queues and then act.

One day I was PMS-ing and was blinkin’ tired of having to read minds. This guy could have easily just asked me to move, what am I supposed to read his mind? I know he wants to to get off at his stop but will it kill him to ask me politely to get out?? When the little shuffle dance started I looked him right in the eye and said in my little Yankee accent:

Is that squirming you are doing British speak for “Excuse me, can I get out please?”

Well,  he looked like I just told him I was The reincarnated Virgin Mary telling him I was pregnant with his child.  Thank god he just burst out laughing and said “Yes, I guess it is…. erm, excuse me!”. Case won… and he was lurvely.


* If you are not in the mood for an expat rant best get outta dodge!!

Related Posts:

What Others Are Saying

  1. Amy January 8, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    I LOVE it! I usually just make some remark like, “wow, people here don’t know how to say excuse me.” Sometimes it’s just so irritating, especially when someone’s walking behind you and they want to pass. Instead of walking so close to my ass, just say EXCUSE ME and I’ll move outta your way! My husband is English and he doesn’t understand why I get so irritated.

  2. Chandra December 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Oh my goodness. I just found your blog and I realize this is an old post but it totally hit home! I am American, living in the US and engaged to a dashing Yorkshireman. This mindreading, beating-about-the-bush stuff has nearly ended our relationship many times. I will get exasperated and yell “JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN!!!”. He just gets very uncomfortable ;)

    Your blog is fantastic! Keep it up. If we ever end up moving back across the pond I will definitely be in touch!

    • yankeebean December 5, 2012 at 6:24 pm

      Hahaa! Even after 12 years my guy still says to me, “What do you mean when you say xxxxxxxx?”. My response is ALWAYS the same, “I mean exactly what I said.”

      I know it’s by no means just a British thing to lace statements with unspoken sub-text, but that’s never been my style. If I say, “This dinner was worth the wait.”, I don’t mean, “This dinner sure took a long time, but at least it tasted good.” Nope – I’m a chica of simple meanings. I ONLY mean, “This dinner was really good and I was happy to wait for it.”

      I wonder if there’s a ‘Say What You Mean’ society of somewhere. Imagine how EASY life would be if everyone JUST DID IT.

  3. Pingback: “Excuse me!” « a web.book

  4. Ms. Lovely April 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    it should write “excuse me”… oops

  5. Ms. Lovely April 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Actually.. that is exactly what my love asked me…

    Do people ever say <> in America?? Why doesn’t anybody just open their mouth to say <>, ever!?…

    so, it is funny your perspective is the same towards England…


  6. Yorkshire Yank December 29, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    To add – of course, it works the other way. If I am the person in the aisle, and I see someone else shuffling with their stuff, I get up and stand out of the way. The worse that has happened is they’ve said “I’m not getting off yet” before I’ve stood up completely, and I’ve sat back down again.

  7. Yorkshire Yank December 29, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    I’ve experienced these things – including men spreading their arms and legs – on the NYC subway, so I don’t think this has to do with the UK or the US; it’s about how people behave on public transport.

    If the train is coming to a stop and you are in the aisle and you see the person shuffling, picking up their bag, etc., you can assume they want to get out. They shouldn’t have to say “Sorry” or “Excuse me.” An exception would be if you don’t notice them at all, for example, if you are asleep or engrossed in a book. But once you have made eye contact and it is clear that you see what they are doing, then you should move.

    The same way that if you were walking down the street and someone was coming the other way you would automatically step a little to the side so you could both pass without bumping into one another – you wouldn’t wait until you were face to face with the other person and say “Excuse me”. That would be confrontational.

    If I were on the train, the train was pulling into the station, I was packing my things in my bag, gathering my coat, etc., and the person who was blocking my way just stared straight ahead ignoring me – or even worse, looked at me and didnt move at all – I would be annoyed.

  8. Michelle December 23, 2010 at 4:03 am

    I’ve found that some people in London have been more outspoken and actually rude this past month that I’ve been here than I remember from living here before for eleven years. I had a security guard at TK Maxx actually run up to me and yell at me when I was doing nothing wrong (I was getting a duplicate item from a shelf at the request of the sales clerk because the item I was trying to pay for at the counter had a sticker that the scanner couldn’t read), I had a fellow customer at Sainsbury’s yell at me that I was in the wrong queue (even though I was in the right one and I held up the Sainsbury’s sign at the entrance of the queue to prove it to him, he didn’t stop trying to force me to move and it finally took the Polish sales clerk to firmly put him in his place and tell him to stop harassing me), a TK Maxx customer service woman was exceedingly haughty to me when I returned a fitted sheet that didn’t fit the bed in my rental flat (it was unused, it was nicely re-folded, it was in the original packaging, I had the receipt, I had just bought it 2 days earlier, it was no skin off her minimum-wage nose to do the refund, but no, she had to make it a big problem), a couple of young and apparently-first-generation-Asian-background and-accent stock guys at Wilkinson’s were obviously trying to scare me by hovering around me in the aisle and muttering “Bin Laden” several times, after I’d asked one of them a question and he heard my American accent (it was so weird – I’ve never had that happen to me before – I am not someone who thinks about these things or expects these things, but that’s what they were doing, and I was the only customer in that part of the store), a well-dressed older man on a train (seemed like a barrister) got all huffy with me because I allowed some people from the other side of the carriage to get off the train before I (and he, who was behind me) did, and with all of them (except for the Wilko incident) I got huffy right back to them, which surprised them. Sorry, I’m not going to tolerate rudeness and pushiness. This was during suburban daytime shopping well-between the snowstorms in mid-December — nothing really for those people to be stressed about.

    I sense a greater-than-normal exhaustion with life and pessimism about the future here in the UK. If it’s a warm summer, I worry that there will be the angry strikes that some are forecasting.

    However, this month I have found that London store clerks themselves are friendlier than they used to be, and maybe that’s a combination of 1) being younger than they used to be (or I’m getting older, ha), 2) just being glad to have a job at all these days, 3) being slightly better trained in customer service than before, 4) having more time to be chatty because there are fewer customers shopping, 5) my looking different and more mumsy / librarian-esque during my current stay here because my former long, blonde hair is now ear-length and brown, 6) more of them (at least in the london areas i’ve been this december) hail from eastern europe.

    But slightly more on-topic –
    It’s not very adaptive or culturally-sensitive of me, but sometimes, when I know that people here are trying to be indirect and indicate something to me without saying anything, I’ll act like I don’t understand and make them verbalize what they want, or otherwise they get worked up and bothered that I’m not acting on their hints. I don’t do that with nice people who are obviously trying to be polite, but with people who are a bit snooty or a bit rough in their manners. Sometimes when I put the situation or sentiment or question into words, I find that people are relieved that I have verbalized something they didn’t feel able to say. I enjoy causing a little grin on people’s faces in the UK, especially when they are trying to be stiff-upper-lipped about something. (A grin of agreement/surprise, not a you-are-an-idiot-and-have-it-all-wrong sort of grin!)

    Back to the Bradbury/Steinem essays, it really is true that what is friendly for one culture can be rude for another, and you may not be able to figure out which one it is until it’s pushed to the extreme.

  9. Christiana December 21, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Haha, though these seems like something I would find odd – it’s typical in DC on the metro. Since reading this post however, I’ve started to say “oh excuse me, this is my stop” and “excuse me, is this your stop”. Because I think you’re right, no one is a mind reader!

  10. Steve Shawcross December 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    I think these non-verbal signs are an attempt are being polite, that is giving a subtle hint you are invading their personal space. The irony is, it’s ruder (in m view anyway) in the sense it’s passive aggressive.

    I do agree the other Steve that we moan about things such as cramped trains, but never do anything pro-active about it.

  11. Steve December 19, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    What strikes me more than the non-verbal signals is the docility with which the British pay for and put up with lousy, even negligent, service on trains. On the mercifully rare occasions when I have to get a later train than normal on a Friday evening, I stand immobilised in the jammed vestibule, fuming and fearing I will be carried past my stop. Everyone else does the British cheery ‘mustn’t grumble / worse things happen at sea’ routine as if the war were still on.

    • peacefulyorkshire December 19, 2010 at 6:09 pm

      Oh Steve, Don’t I feel your pain!!

  12. dyana December 16, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    uh, hmmm. generally people start picking up their stuff, then turn towards the aisle. pretty obvious to me…

    i can’t say i’ve ever engaged in silent territory fight either. just sit down arrange myself and go.

    hell, people actually get to chatting on crowded trains. or as i saw yesterday blatantly watch someone elses movie (very nice of her to have elf on actually).

    the newcastle line can’t be that different from elsewhere outside london?

  13. Doris December 13, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    must be a new breed of Brits. Perhaps the new cultural merge.

  14. tami curtis December 9, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    actually, i experience something a little different. there are tons of men on my trains who insist on spreading their arms out, or should i say ‘elbows’ to read the paper, regardless if anyone is sitting next to them, or to be more precise, if a Woman is sitting next to them. They seem to think it is their right. I dont know if its the American in me, or the pissed off female, but i never allow this and always do the ‘push back’ where usually an elbow fight ensues. Its quite fun actually, we are both pushing each other back and the English dude is usually waiting for the woman to back down . . . but you know, that never happens!
    American woman : 1, British gent : 0.

  15. alisha December 5, 2010 at 6:08 am

    He he… this made me laugh. :)

  16. Doris December 3, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I talked with my British husband about this, because living in the US I don’t quite remember how it is over there and he said “yes, that’s how it is”. If they’d say anything it would be “SORRY”

    • peacefulyorkshire December 3, 2010 at 5:06 pm

      Hiya Doris
      I am visiting in the USA now and have noticed the amount of times I say ‘sorry’ to everyone instead of excuse me as an expat. It seems so self deprecating in the American climate.
      It is such a polite habit in England though, no?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>