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Excuse me, can I apologize?

When I traveled as a single woman, going places, independently, I learned words and phrases that might help me to appear polite: Pardon. Mi scusi. Je suis désolée. Ana asfa. Excuse me. I'm sorry. These were words and phrases that I rarely - if ever - heard in passing or in casual conversation in many of the places I traveled for things as simple as the barely noticed brush of the elbow on the crowded bus: Excuse me! I'm sorry! Or for the niceties tacked on to the beginning of an exchange with a vendor: Excuse me. I would like to buy one apricot, please Or to interrupt someone's leisurely stroll down the street: I'm sorry. Do you have the time?

Nevertheless, I learned and used these words and phrases anyway. In part, as a very simple way to attempt to speak and make connections in a language not my own. In part, as well, as an overly conscious effort to avoid being mistaken for a badly behaved American abroad.

But in part, I wonder whether I chose to learn these specific phrases because softer, less forceful and more apologetic entries into conversation were somehow ingrained into my being as a young woman. I wonder if I slid regularly into this way of speaking - in any language - as an attempt to excuse myself for taking up time. To excuse myself for taking up space. To apologize for thinking that I might have something to say.

Was I undermining myself with apologies? In more recent days and years, with a different set of obligations and closer to home, I don't find myself thinking quite as literally about "going places." Going places, now, equates to making some sort of advancement in any given area in which I might choose to apply myself. In quite the same way, I've been considering the whys and hows of the language that I choose to use and how I approach situations, the weight and effect my words can carry.

I spent two days tracking my apologies.

In just those two days, I discovered, I apologized for a lot of things. For pushing open a door too quickly and startling a woman pulling the door open from the other side. For my cellphone dying in the middle of a conversation with a friend. For not returning an email as timely as I thought the receiver expected it. For forgetting to pick up milk on the way home.

Much like my younger traveling self, I realize, I'm still a woman who attempts to be gracious, always trying to keep things easy, forever trying to smooth things over. But maybe I was undermining. There are many times when "I'm sorry" isn't self-deprecating or even truly an apology; it's an unfortunate automatic, which, with work, could be avoided. Sometimes it's a graceful way of keeping both speakers on equal footing - which isn't a bad thing.

Perhaps, I think, it might simply be worth considering saving Excuse me and I'm sorry for the times and events that actually call for them. Letting those words and their potential power hold the impact and weight intended, regardless of where I am or where I'm going.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.


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