One afternoon, in the little convenience store at work, I found myself in a familiar, very awkward position. A woman in line had positioned herself directly blocking access to the rest of the shoppers, and she seemed oblivious. By the world's standards, there's an "easy" way of dealing with such a situation: Say "Excuse me." But I couldn't do it.
Like countless times before, I found myself completely paralyzed at the very thought. That reaction was so common, I was no longer even conscious of it. It's been second nature to me for many years to avoid the phrase, at almost any cost. For some reason, this time, I found myself questioning this reaction. Why was I afraid to say these two words?
As I thought about this, I found myself reliving years' worth of experiences. Experiences that left me feeling confused, and chastised. What was the common denominator?
Well, the fact is that the phrase "Excuse Me" is one of those in the English language whose meaning is determined more by cues such as body language and tone of voice than the words themselves. Say it in an overly sweet voice, people won't believe that you're sorry, thinking you're insincere. Ditto if you say it in too flat a voice.
Preface it by spearing them with a stern look and clearing your throat, and it becomes a subtly judgmental expression. Say it too abruptly, it takes on a meaning akin to "Get out of my way!" Add some sarcasm, and it implies that not only are you not sorry, but that you are the put upon party.
The whole thing was very confusing...how do you get this right? How do you know the right voice tones, gestures and body language? To an average person not on the autism spectrum, it's something that comes easily, almost without thought. But, for someone like me, it can be a real struggle. And people can be really unkind if you get something like this wrong.
People tend to view these failures as a question of poor manners and willful rudeness, instead of inability. These social customs are considered so basic, it's hard for most people to conceive that your unintentional gaffe is truly unintentional, and therefore take it very personally. Over the years, I was at the receiving end of far too many snide comments and angry reactions - reactions that I had no idea how to remedy.
I developed a healthy fear of the phrase...and, almost without realizing it, began actively avoiding its use. However, such avoidance isn't easy, and had a tangible effect on my life. For example, in the early years, my husband would often ask me, in exasperation, why it took me so long to grocery shop. He'd be done and ready to be out the door before I was halfway finished.
I, on the other hand, seemed to take forever...and one reason was that I always seemed to be making multiple rounds of the store. Why? Think about how many times the words "Excuse me," are uttered on a busy shopping day. I spent the majority of my shopping experience attempting to avoid these situations.
Like a live-action version of Pac-Man, I'd find myself navigating through the maze of aisles in an erratic pattern, dodging situations in which I'd be required to interact with another shopper. Oops! There's a little old lady in the condiments aisle, absorbed in the nutritional details on a Heinz ketchup bottle. Turn around!
Next, the couple conducting a conspicuous argument in the pasta aisle. Then, the young mother whose squabbling offspring cannot agree on who gets to "drive" the cart, etc., etc. Sometimes, I'd traverse the entire store, just to arrive back where I'd begun.
Situations such as the one I found myself in that workday afternoon were even worse. In a large grocery store, shoppers' carts provided at least some buffer from the crowd of shoppers...but in small little shops like this, shoppers were often sandwiched together with only inches between them.
Not a pleasant experience for someone with sensory defensiveness issues...often I'd find myself fighting the deep longing to just shove the person out of the way so that I could remove myself from the intolerable situation of being trapped in the crowd.
Of course, I learned as a small child that such behavior was never appropriate, so I learned that I had to build a tolerance for it. The problem is, if you're blocked on all sides, and can't bring yourself to ask others to move, how do you extricate yourself from the situation?
I developed two main methods of coping with this situation: wait or suck it in and attempt to slip by. Either method was problematic...executed improperly, they can be almost as bad as a failed "excuse me."
When I chose to wait, there was always the question of what to do with my eyes...where do I look? I learned early that standing and staring at people was a very quick shortcut to being labeled a psycho - but what are the options? My shoes? A spot on the wall? What if I am so surrounded that anywhere I look intersects with someone else--what then?
Also was the point of making the other shopper aware of my presence...what do I say? Do I clear my throat? This touched on exactly the issues that made "excuse me" problematic. So, I often just remained silent.
Most frequently, this resulted in an unpleasantly startled shopper...how long had I been there, they'd wonder? And why hadn't I just said, "Excuse me"? Sheepishly, they'd move aside -- but I'd guess that a good share of them were annoyed, but too polite to say so.
Choosing to slip by was worse. Sometimes you might get away with it, if the person was deeply distracted enough, but often that was not the case. It was far easier when I was younger, and smaller, but as an older person - it simply wasn't so easy. Misjudgment meant bumping unexpectedly into the person, which usually was not met with a favorable reaction.
After that afternoon encounter, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the challenges that my avoidance of the phrase had caused. What were my fears based on? How old were the failures that formed them?
A few days later, I found myself in the same situation...but this time I decided to try something different. I took a deep breath, and said, "Excuse me." The woman looked up, smiled, and said, "Oh, I'm sorry." Then she moved aside.
Sometimes victory comes in the smallest of packages.