The “Excuse Me” Fallacy
Most people say “excuse me” quite often. It’s an easy way to be courteous when you’ve stepped in someone’s way or expelled bodily gas from any number of orifices in their general area. It’s a way to say “I’m sorry I’ve inconvenienced you in some small way,” or “I know that fart smelled like I crapped my pants, but I promise it will drift off soon enough if you just hang in there.” It’s one of those things that most people say without even thinking, a reflex.
Most of the time it’s well-received, too. “Sure,” or “no problem,” or “don’t worry about it” are probably the most common responses to “excuse me.” That is of course as long as the infraction is minor. “Excuse me” is fine if you bump my cart in the supermarket, but it’s not going to cut it if you just ran over my car with your tank. In general, though, it is used and received appropriately, leaving a nice, tidy social convention for anyone who doesn’t want to see society fall into chaos.
The thing is, like with a murder rap or speeding ticket, we only say “excuse me”/”I’m guilty” when we’re pretty sure we’ve been nailed. For most people, saying “excuse me” is not the thing to do because of its nobility, but because all of the plots above it on the list were foiled. To wit:
I just farted. It’s bad. There are twelve people in the room. The exit door is about seventeen feet to the northwest, blocked by a stack of old boxes and furniture. Four of the guests are definitely out of smelling range. The other eight sit at two tables in opposite corners of the room, about twenty feet apart. If I just walk out now, I may carry some residual stink past the two groups of people at the table. They may have already smelled it, though. Did they? Did they blame anyone else? None of them look too happy. They must be smelling it. Shit. Where’s the exit? Blocked, that’s right. “Excuse me, guys. Sorry about that.”
“Excuse me” is mostly a lie told to keep us from killing each other. If you accidentally bump into me in an airport bathroom, then you don’t say anything, I’m going to want to rip your eyeballs out and use them for hackeysacks. If you say “excuse me” or “sorry,” I leave that bathroom thinking about what a stand-up guy you are. You probably don’t care that much that you bumped me. Shit, you might have done it on purpose, but saying “excuse me” lets you have your cake and eat it too, if that’s the case. You get to be a jerk and have me walk away thinking about how great you are.
And, as in the example above, nobody’s going to own up to a bad fart until they absolutely have to. That’s why phrases like “he who smelt it, dealt it” exist. Have to blame somebody. Let’s say you’ve just walked into a meeting at your new job. You ate leftover pizza for breakfast. It’s coming out of you in strange ways.
As you walk into your first Executive-level meeting, you cut loose the quietest, juiciest, smelliest fart you’ve ever set forth into the world. You saunter to your chair, pray you don’t feel anything when you sit down, and start taking note of flaring nostrils. If you can, when you fart, survey the scene in that moment. Make the memory vivid and crystal clear. It will help you later.
So you’re looking at the nostrils, and it’s Def-con 3, flare-wise. Women in pantsuits are stuffing their faces into their blouses, and not for the view. Men are taking big whiffs of whatever the hell is on their fingers from the days before. Nobody looks at you in any kind of strange way, though. You think you are safe. You say nothing.
The meeting goes well. You must be immune to your own fart-stink, because you were twice as productive as the rest of the group. At the end, the boss stands up, and a screen lowers down the wall behind you. On that screen is the product of a device similar to infrared radar, which picks up the intensity of smells instead of heat or sound.
There is a tremendous, glowing ball around someone in the picture, denoted by the color “awful diarrhea green.” That someone was standing in the door when they produced that toxic cloud of green gas. That person got caught. Now he’s back in the mailroom. His MBA don’t mean shit, there. If only he’d have just said “excuse me.”
Employers probably aren’t setting up elaborate fart-detection systems with code names like “Fart-sniffer” just yet, but it’s around the corner. Humans are creatures who love to get away with shit, literally and figuratively. It’s in our nature, be it a fart or the murder of 972 prostitutes. There’s something exhilarating about doing something wrong with nobody finding out.
That’s why “excuse me” is mostly a lie, but one of the most honest things in the world when you actually mean it. It’s a social convention that I wish was taken more seriously, in general. Quick accountability and expression of regret. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ll still be keeping my farts as secret as possible unless it’s a windy day. Ah, windy days… when you only have to worry about the loud ones.