Do I say excuse me or I’m sorry?

You’re walking down aisle 8 in the grocery store. It’s the one with sparkling water and all the other bottled waters. You slow down. You’re standing with your cart next to another customer who’s looking at the items on the shelf in front of you. Both of you are deciding what to place in your cart.

The other customer reaches forward and at the same time, you lean in to make a move on the item you want. It’s a bit awkward. You both fumble and neither of you pick up the item you intended to grab.

They say to you: “I’m sorry.”

I’m curious what you say back to them?

Is it: “No, no, I’m sorry.”

Or is it: “Excuse me, please you go ahead.”

For this situation, let’s use “excuse me, please you go ahead.”

They reach down and pick up the item. Place in the cart and head on to their next item, saying thanks as they scoot away to what you’re predicting is their next move: the dairy section. You give a nod and smile, then reach down and grab your item.

I find it fascinating how often people say “I’m sorry,” when I think what they mean is “excuse me.”

I too previously would say, “I’m sorry” in situations like the one above. Truthfully, it never felt quite right. I’ve recently decided to completely shift away from “I’m sorry” and use the phrase, “Excuse me.”

Here’s why.

The other customer did nothing wrong.

They didn’t hurt my feelings.

They didn’t rudely push me out of the way.

They didn’t do anything impolite.

In fact, they were kind, warm, and open. Saying hello to me as we stood together in the aisle.

So, what then do they have to apologize for?

Existing? Taking up space next to me? Being human? Breathing? Looking at the same item as me?

More often than not, people say “I’m sorry” and I see them give away their power. It’s a quick way to say: “whatever it was I didn’t mean it and I don’t want you to think any less of me.”

What I realized in practicing the phrase, “Excuse me” is that I feel more respectful to the other person and considerate of their needs.

The reality is neither of us have anything to feel apologetic about and in many ways if we do say, “I’m sorry” as an escape from the awkwardness, it cheapens our ability to apologize when it is needed.

In this moment though, I do need to acknowledge that there was a fumble and I that we’re both there. I need to see the other person.