Why Singapore’s “Excuse Me” Doesn’t Mean “Sorry”

One might assume that Singapore is a country full of friendly and polite people. You can hear them apologizing the whole time. Morning till night. “Excuus”, “Scuss”, “Escuss Eh” or all of them in a volume increasing row. However adoring Singaporeans kindness and thinking about my older post on Weird Singaporean Habits, I came to question myself if an excuse in Singapore really means “Sorry”.

“Get Out Of My Way!” – I Mean “Excuse Me”

You have probably realized quite quick that “Excuse Me” in Singapore is being used as the universal term for everything, despite.. really apologizing of course.

I was firstly confused about the hundreds of different forms and ways of pronouncing “Excuse Me” in Singapore, but soon realized, that its not really about the direct meaning of the words “Excuse Me”, no, its much more just about the tone and sound of it and what the people here have developed to imply with it when hearing that sound. (The Secret And Unique Side Of Singapore)

My general understanding of how people here use “Excuse Me” after 2 years in Singapore is not of an appologizing one, but much more of a way to demand something.

Sorry… uhm … Could you please?

I wrote earlier about how I sense and see Singaporeans very often as to be impolite till the point of being rude. And we broke it down to several reasons, one being the nature of not losing your face in the Asian culture and another being the general Singaporean “Kiasuness“.

However… I still get irritated when someone bumps into me (I repeat, bumps into me) and gives me the typical “Tsk” sound or that weird-completely-non-interpretable-look instead of an apology, but 10 minutes later in my MRT ride home someone yells “EXCUUUS ME” in my ear, 2 minutes before we have even arrived at the station. (The Most Annoying Sound Of Singapore)

And that “Excuse Me” is not to be compared to any kind form of really asking for “Sorry”, its more a camouflaged version of “Let Me through or I poke you with my wet umbrella!

The Good And The Bad

Two examples from opposite sides very well display the twist in Singapore’s system of politeness and why the “Kindness Campaign” hasn’t really worked out yet in my opinion. (The 6 Most Weird Campaigns In Singapore)

  • 1. The Bad
    As usually I walk down the escalator (on the right side) until the point where someone blocks my way (as usual).

    So I say “Sorry“.
    – Nothing Happens.
    I repeat “Sorry, may I?“.
    – Nothing happens. The two ladies happily blocking my way are having a vivid and nice conversation completely ignoring me.
    So I give it a last try again “Sorry, can I please pass?
    – And now… the lady on the right side turns around with a furious face shouting at me… “YOU HAVE TO SAY “EXCUSE ME“…
    Oh.. uhm.. ok, I thought I did!
    NO YOU DIDNT!
  • 2. The Good
    I had both hands full with bags and just leaving space for a very thin person I squeezed myself into the escalator of my new HDB block. The only person with me is a small, approx 8 year old school boy.
    As i prepare to put down my many bags to press the button for my floor the boy goes
    “Which floor sir?”
    And upon me telling him which one and saying “Thank You“, I even (and that something really special) get a “You Are Welcome“. Wow. I was so stunned I forgot to get out.

It Feels … Wrong

Despite the fact that many people here don’t even dare to say “Excuse Me” out loud anymore, but much more whisper it behind your back expecting you to jump out of their way, the way it is used by everyone without even contemplating the real meaning of it, feels wrong.

I think the government should start a new campaign about “How To Use “Excuse-Me” In The Right Way And When To Use “Sorry“.

That would be a perfect addition to the “Kindness Campaign“, the “Hello Campaign” and the (unfortunately not yet existing) “Leave People out of the MRT first Campaign“.

Have a good day, excuse me, I have some work to do…

comments

8 Comments

ryan

I usually wait till the MRT door opens b4 trying to get my way out. But sometimes saying “excuse me” didn’t help! Those ppl standing right in front of the door remain ignorant of what’s happening ard them.

Enjoyed ur post once again! I’m much into the Singaporean culture/behavior, particularly whn it comes to the MRTs. It’s quite entertaining frm 3rd person’s pov but rather frustrating frm the 1st. Also recently wrote a post on how some Singaporeans ninja their way in MRTs.

Hope to hear more stories from you. :)

Holly

I remember when they introduced standing on one side of the escalator. With typical Singaporean efficiency there was a big leafletting campaign and they videoed people on the escalator to ensure they stood on the correct side. And it worked, with a few exceptions. Can you imagine what it was like before!

admin

well, then I wonder at what point people “stopped” working, again. If you look at the escalators today… no chance

Shovel

Amen, AA. I hear your pain, and sometimes even feel it with a smack to the elbow from someone’s laptop bag as they try to force their way past me on the MRT.
Then again, maybe that’s because i have my head-phones in: how on EARTH am i expected to hear the “‘scuss me”???

Binkie

When parents have bad manners, their kids won’t have any good manners at all. It is upbringing. I was at a supermarket queuing to pay for my purchases. Since the queue was very long, we stood in the pathway between the cashier and the food shelves. 2 kids along with their mother, just waltzed right into me and yelled “EXCUSE ME!”. I was stunned! How rude! So, I told the kid who was in front “Please would be nice, thank you!” He grunted at me and pushed his way through. Singapore parents – please remember that if your kids have rotten manners, it is your fault.

pity-the-foo'

yeah…thats why i avoid saying it at all. People should be aware of whats happening around them. So when the train stops, look behind you, get to the side to let ppl pass.

Pisses me off when they dont…why the fuck should I say excuse me politely? You’re the fucking cow blocking half the walkway. Either you get out of my way or get ready for a well aimed stomp on your foot.

Francois Le Coguiec

About your “The Good And The Bad” post above.
May I ask… are you a native English speaker?
Please note that there is an important difference between “excuse me” and “sorry”. It is very obviously incorrect English to use “sorry” when you are in fact asking people to make way. (as you seem to do in your example).
This mistake is indeed one of the easiest way to spot non native English speakers.
You only say “sorry” for things you have already done. If you are calling people’s attention for them to make way, you really have nothing to be sorry about. The correct and only thing to say is “Excuse me”. (You can also say “excuse me please” or some variations…). But you should definitely not say “sorry”: This would immediately flag you as having an imperfect command of English.
You would say “sorry” after the fact, for having knocked something or someone down, or other actions you need to apologise for.
So, the two ladies happily blocking your way were right, and you were a little bit too quick in dismissing them.

(Note that my point is specific about the language. I agree with many of your other points)

Cherie

im local and i have to agree with most of your entries esp this.

one thing that i’d like to add on is, they dont really say “excuse me” these days.
the new in word is “sorry”
which they dont mean obviously.

its like “sorry” then you get some moron pushing past you.

god now they dont even use the proper terms.

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