In his amusing book Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners, and in interviews Henry Alford describes a six-week campaign of retaliatory apologies, or “reverse etiquette.” It must not catch on.
Alford calls himself a humorist, journalist, and guy of letters. Although he writes about manners, you may have detected that he does not call himself an etiquette expert. Elsewhere Alford notes, “I can be, as I may have mentioned, an ass.”
Which makes for good reading.
In his retaliatory apologies, Alford apologized to strangers who had done something for which they ought to have apologized to him. When they didn’t, he did. A clerk in a grocery store drops his apple on the ground, picks it up and puts it in his bag, saying nothing. Alford says “Oh, I’m sorry.”
She automatically replies, “That’s okay.” (Clearly an idiot.) Alford went on “Sorry about that—I really didn’t mean for you to drop that.” She says nothing. “[S]she stared off into the mid-distance as if receiving instructions from outer space.” I don’t think she was listening to alien communiques, I think she was hoping not to hear more communiques from that alien, Alford.
He gives a few more examples – a clerk in a pizzeria who can’t make change for a twenty, so Alford has to go next door and get it himself. No thanks or apology came from the clerk, and Alford says, “So sorry—I hope I didn’t keep you waiting.”
Alford says he’s hoping people will figure it out later, maybe the next time someone owes them an apology that isn’t forthcoming. Right.
Alford wasn’t content with “improving others’ lives with gentle-time-released lessons. Sometimes, the angry little man in me wants more. Such as, an apology.”
So he began a two-pronged technique: first the apology to the person who should have apologized, then an explanation of what he’s up to. To a man who bumps him with a duffel bag, Alford apologizes and then says “I’m saying what you should be saying.” The guy says “Oh, right.”
To a woman who bangs into him with a stroller, Alford lays it out” “No one says ‘I’m sorry’ anymore, so I do it for them.” He adds that “at least the words have been released into the universe.” She gapes.
Since she hasn’t fled, Alford gets to go on. “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 replies. “I’ll think about it.” Which Alford says is what he’d been longing to hear. But as a rule, what he was doing was “totally lost” on the people he reverse-apologized to.
This isn’t a brand-new technique. People have long said things like, “I’m so sorry, did my eye get in the way of your elbow?” “Pardon me for standing where you wanted to spit,” and “Well, FORGIVE ME FOR LIVING!”
I’m not sure how often it works.
Alford apologizes because they don’t – and now that he’s tried it, we don’t have to. He knows he was being “abrasive” and “horrendous.” In response to rudeness, he generated more rudeness. Rudeness dressed up in a politeness suit. Interesting to read about, but as a custom, it must not stand.
I do like Alford’s obliquely worded story of showing Miss Manners how one – how he – hails a New York taxi. Wait, not hails, steals. His method caused Miss Manners to say, “Wow. You really do have a technique.” Not, “I shall use that technique from now on.”