The New York Times
By HENRY ALFORD
Published: November 10, 2008
I SOMETIMES find strangers’ manners so lacking that I have started engaging in an odd kind of activism. I call it reverse etiquette: I supply the apology that they should be giving me.
When the ebullient young woman behind the cash register at the grocery store dropped my apple on the ground, she smiled nervously, picked it up and put it in my bag, but said nothing. So I offered, in a neutral tone of voice, “Oh, I’m sorry.” This did not elicit the remorse I hoped it would — she simply grimace-smiled and said, “That’s O.K.” So I added, “Sorry about that — I really didn’t mean for you to drop that.” At which she stared off into the mid-distance as if receiving instructions from outer space.
A few weeks later, the skinny, 20-something gentleman manning the cash register at the pizzeria told me, “I can’t break a 20.” So I asked, “Would you mind terribly if I went next door and got change?” He said, “That’s fine.” When I returned, no thanks or apology forthcoming from him, I said in a flat, non-sarcastic voice, “So sorry — I hope I didn’t keep you waiting?” Confused, he shook his head no. “I forget stuff sometimes,” I said — a cue that went unmet.
How did I get here? I’d feel like a marm or a scold if I told a stranger that he has bad manners; so instead I wage a campaign of subtle remonstrance. That this subtle remonstrance was, in its initial forays at least, mostly lost on my interlocutors did not faze me: being able to sublimate my irritation was its own reward.
But I like to think that in some instances my behavior, by causing others to wonder what I’m going on about, may help to carry out etiquette’s mandate: to promote empathy. It’s my distinct hope that the person who is apologized to when she drops my apple is a person who will have an epiphany the next time someone drops her apple.
And yet, placated though I am by the realization that I am providing others with gentle, time-released lessons, sometimes the angry little man inside me wants more. Much more. To wit, an apology.
So I have become more explicit in my acts of reverse etiquette. The other day I apologized to a tall, bearded man who slammed his duffel into me at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. Then I told him, “I’m saying what you should be saying.” He responded, in toto, “Oh, right.”
Though this response could not be described as “blanket-like,” it nevertheless gave me enough ground to see that I was on the right track. I realized that I just need to be even more explicit with people. So the other day, when a stroller-pushing mother semi-vigorously bumped into me at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street — this corner is apparently the Bermuda Triangle of manners — I expressed remorse, and added, “No one says I’m sorry anymore, so I do it for them.”
“My idea is that if I say I’m sorry, then at least the words have been released into the universe.”
She stared at me with equal parts irritation and faint horror, as if I had just asked her to attend a three-hour lecture on the history of the leotard.
I continued: “The apology gets said, even if it’s not by the right person. It makes me feel better. And maybe you’ll know what to say next time.”
“Wow,” she said. (The tickets for the leotard lecture were $200, or $500 at the door.)
And then, finally, came the words I have longed these many months to hear: “I’ll think about it.”
Henry Alford is the author of the forthcoming “How to Live.”
More Articles in Opinion » A version of this article appeared in print on November 10, 2008, on page A29 of the New York edition.