24

Is there a quick phrase, like "excuse me", that means "You're not in my way; please don't change this fact"?

I mean in the context of e.g. passing someone who's on the grass between the sidewalk and the road, looking away from me, and is liable to back up into the sidewalk.

11 Answers 11

15

That's a very tricky problem.

On the one hand you don't want them to bump into you, on the other hand cultural norms (here in South-East England) forbid you from invading the privacy of strangers by speaking to them - or, god forbid, even perhaps startling them, which would be rude.

I would cough loudly to make them aware of my presence. If they're actually moving in your direction and are inches from hitting you then a "sorry!" is culturally permitted. "um!" or "ooh!" is also a last-minute option. As @Andrey suggests, "behind you!" would also be ok if a collision is otherwise unavoidable.

If you are actually bumped into then normal usage is for you to immediately apologise ("sorry!"). You can pre-empt this a little bit by acting as though the collision has taken place when actually it's about to take place ("sorry!"), thereby preventing it from taking place.

I believe that in other English-speaking countries around the world, the problem does not exist (or not to this extent), and a cheery "hey there buddy, mind you don't bump into me!" may be allowed.

Rather than trying to say something, a simpler option may be for you (as potential bump-ee) to silently take evasive action.

If you're riding a bicycle then two dings are appropriate,

Use a bell, giving Two Tings when approaching pedestrians to let them know you are there. (Please note this is not an order to pedestrians to get out of the way.)

Towpath cycling code of conduct, British Waterways

although remember to look embarrassed and say "sorry!" or "thanks!" as you pass, in order to soften the "undertone of reprimand":

I have [a bell] – but I don't know how to use it. I either ring it too close, and the victim jumps three feet into the air and presses themselves against the wall with an expression that clearly says "Holy crap, a cyclist passing me in a blur", even when I've slowed down to my customary 4mph. Or I do it from too far away, and because of the wind speed on that particular day, or a hearing impairment, nobody notices, and then it's too late to ring again, or even say "I wonder if I could just squeeze past on your left/right" without incurring the holy-crap response. ...

Personally, when I'm on foot, I don't like bells. I can never get past the undertone of reprimand. The Highway Code says car horns should only be used "to warn other road users of your presence"; and bells are to "let [road users] know you are there when necessary". Yeah yeah. The fact is that car horns don't say "Ahem...", they say "Oi, dickhead!", and for many pedestrians, bells do too.

One cyclist's bell has turned into hell on the towpath, Ben Thomas, The Guardian, 22 Oct 2009

If you're driving a vehicle and a pedestrian is about to step backwards into the road and be run over by you then it is permissible for you to toot your horn, but expect them to be annoyed at your rudeness rather than grateful that you've saved their life.

Anthropolgist Kate Fox has conducted extensive experiments in the bumping of English people:

I spent several amusing afternoons in busy, crowded public places (train stations, tube stations, bus stations, shopping centres, street corners, etc.) accidentally-on-purpose bumping into people to see if they would say ‘sorry’. A number of my informants, both natives and visitors, had cited this ‘reflex apology’ as a particularly striking example of English courtesy, and I was fairly sure I had experienced it myself – but I felt obliged to do the proper scientific thing and actually test the theory in a field-experiment or two.

My bumping got off to a rather poor start. The first few bumps were technically successful, in that I managed to make them seem convincingly accidental, but I kept messing up the experiment by blurting out an apology before the other person had a chance to speak. As usual, this turned out to be a test of my own Englishness: I found that I could not bump into someone, however gently, without automatically saying ‘sorry’. After several of these false starts, I finally managed to control my knee-jerk apologies by biting my lip – firmly and rather painfully – as I did the bumps. Having perfected the technique, I tried to make my experiments as scientific as possible by bumping into a representative cross-section of the English population, in a representative sample of locations. Somewhat to my surprise, the English lived up to their reputation: about 80 per cent of my victims said ‘sorry’ when I lurched into them, even though the collisions were quite clearly my fault.

There were some minor variations in the response: I found that older people were slightly more likely to apologize than younger people (late-teenage males were the least apologetic, particularly when in groups), and British Asians seemed to have a somewhat stronger sorry-reflex than British Afro-Caribbeans (possibly a reflection of the negative-politeness tendency in Indian culture – such apologies being a clear example of politeness that is primarily concerned with the avoidance of imposition or intrusion). But these differences were marginal: the vast majority of the bumped, of all ages, classes and ethnic origin, apologized when I ‘accidentally’ jostled them.

These experiments would tell us little or nothing about Englishness if exactly the same results were obtained in other countries, so by way of ‘controls’ I diligently bumped into as many people as I could in France, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Poland and Lebanon. Recognising that this would not constitute a representative international sample, I also bumped into tourists of different nationalities (American, German, Japanese, Spanish, Australian, Scandinavian) at tourist-trap locations in London and Oxford. Only the Japanese (surprise, surprise) seemed to have anything even approaching the English sorry-reflex, and they were frustratingly difficult to experiment on, as they appeared to be remarkably adept at sidestepping my attempted collisions. This is not to say that my bumpees of other nationalities were discourteous or unpleasant – most just said ‘Careful!’ or ‘Watch out!’ (or the equivalent in their own language), and many reacted in a positively friendly manner, putting out a helpful arm to steady me, sometimes even solicitously checking that I was unhurt before moving on – but the automatic ‘sorry’ did seem to be a peculiarly English response.

Watching the English, The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, Kate Fox, ISBN 0340818867

However, the 'you've just bumped into me' "sorry!" is not necessarily a sincere apology:

The English “sorry” is a marker not of grace and decorum, but rather of a belief that one magic word has the power to decontaminate the world even as it both pacifies and reproves those who pollute it. “Sorry” is a mixture of decayed piety and passive-aggressive guile. ...

Today, the English appear to be very good at apologizing for things they haven’t done, but not very good at apologizing for things they have done. They have a copious vocabulary of suave aversion and strategic self-effacement. ...

“It’s my fault,” say the English when they are sure it’s your fault and want you to squirm.

A Poor Apology for a Word, Henry Hitchings, New York Times 13 Dec 2013

Of course none of these shenanigans are necessary or desirable in other parts of the British Isles, or even in the North of England, where all this ritualised politeness is often perceived as an affectation of effete middle-class Southerners.[linked video contains swearing, may be NSFW]

41

¨Coming through¨ is equally useful whether the person is in your way or not. It is generic enough that nobody need feel insulted by any suggestion that they are a stupid obstacle. It simply announces ¨I am making my way through a potentially awkward space and I hope nobody will obstruct me¨, issues no command telling anybody how (or whether) to deal with that, but carries the clear implication that the speaker has no intention of being halted.

Cyclists (in the UK, at any rate) will often say ¨On your right¨ as they approach a slower cyclist with the intention of overtaking. I am not sure this would be useful to those on foot, since there is, in that context, no convention as to which side would be more suitable. That said, it might be effective since it is likely to mildly perplex the listener, causing them to slow and turn to look.

UK cyclists who say ¨On your left¨ are irresponsible and dangerous, of course ;)

  • 5
    We have the same convention in the US (with the sides switched, of course). I spend a fair amount of time as a pedestrian on mixed-use paths, and I can attest that in that context at least "on your left" is common, understood, and appreciated. (But on such paths there is a convention [albeit not universally observed] that you stick to the right side unless you're passing.) – Curtis H. Nov 25 '14 at 17:06
  • 6
    Relevant Simpsons clip. – Spehro Pefhany Nov 25 '14 at 18:33
  • 2
    A rapper friend of mine would say this. – Renae Lider Nov 25 '14 at 21:02
  • 2
    @PatrickM One downside to those is a slightly increased sense of urgency, towards "You are in inevitable danger if you do not react quickly." This may be desirable in some situations, though. – Jason C Nov 25 '14 at 23:39
  • 1
    @PatrickM IMO "Look out" means "you're in danger" so one shouldn't use that. – ChrisW Nov 26 '14 at 1:41
11

The phrase "Behind you" seems appropriate. It is most commonly used in places like restaurants where waiters end up in situations that one could bump the other by taking a step back sending dishes flying

10

I usually say/hear:

Stay put, you're fine!

  • 9
    Depending on context, I might consider this quite rude. – Nathan MacInnes Nov 25 '14 at 23:42
  • 1
    I suppose the reason it could be rude is that it's an instruction/demand, rather than a warning as with other answers. – Nathan MacInnes Nov 25 '14 at 23:43
  • @NathanMacInnes It seems to me a bit more familiar & therefore perhaps a bit less rude than "Don't move" or "Keep still" (Not to mention that if someone tells me "Don't move" or "Keep still," especially if I'm standing in grass, my first thought would be that a snake or bee is about to attack, in which case & in spite of the well-meant instruction, I'd probably run, arms flailing in the air, in the direction of the voice! But you're right, it is in the form of a command & not just a warning. But is issuing a "warning" about something that one is about to do, LIKE IT OR NOT, any less rude? – Papa Poule Nov 26 '14 at 0:39
  • 2
    I don't think this is particularly rude but I think it is a little odd, if somebody said this to me my reaction would be one of initial confusion ("Wait, did I think I wasn't fine here? Or... what?") or maybe indignation ("Uh, thanks for your approval."). I.e. this is would be a good response if I asked "Am I fine here?", but out of nowhere seems unclear. – Jason C Nov 26 '14 at 2:13
9

Without context it is hard to say, but there are a few options I can think of:

  • If you are performing an activity and encounter a person who is not in your way, say nothing. The status quo will be maintained.
  • If you are performing an activity and encounter a person who is not in your way, but are feeling friendly, say, "Hi" or offer another casual greeting.
  • If you are performing an activity and encounter a person who is not on your way, but is unaware of you and you would like to alert them, say "Be careful, right behind you", or "Coming through". If they choose to move despite not having to, it's generally no big deal. (Given your clarification in comments, this seems like your situation.)
  • If you are performing an activity and encounter a person who thinks they are in your way and moves or apologizes, say some form of "No worries" or "It's OK, you weren't in my way".
  • If you are performing an activity and encounter a person who asks you if they are in your way, say "No" or some form of "No, you're fine".
  • If you happen to notice a person that you are not otherwise near, and just want to inform them that they are not in your way, say nothing. I.e. if you are walking on the street and you spot a person across the street, don't go out of your way to tell them they weren't in your way, that's just weird.
  • If you notice a person who is not in your way, but for some reason you really don't want them to move, just tell them to "stay there". Again, this may be odd.
3

I've used “heads up!” in similar situations. For instance, a person walking with his head down in heavy foot traffic, concentrating on his phone, is about to walk into you. You can say it gently or not-so-gently depending on whether you want to warn or scold.

Although in this case heads up! might literally mean raise your head up, it generally means pay attention. It's not the most polite expression but in New York City, where I do a lot of walking, succinctness is a virtue.

3

"Mind your backs, please."

That should do the trick.

  • This is certainly pretty common in the UK. – Erik Kowal Nov 27 '14 at 6:20
1

I prefer:

Look out, mate!

or:

Watch it, mate!

or:

Hey, look where you're going bruh.

1

Where I live there are public paths through parks which can get quite busy with equestrian, pedestrian, and bike traffic.

When approaching and passing someone from behind behind, the custom is to say:

On your left!

This both announces that you are behind them with the intention of passing, and that you're going to do it to the person's left side (toards the center of the trail, since people stay to the right).

1

"On your left" "on your right" "coming up behind"

0

"On your left", "On your right," "Behind you," or "Stop!"

I have often been on a ski slope shouting to skier ahead of me, "ON YOUR LEFT!!" as loud as I could to avoid getting cut off, as they tend to zig-zag their way erratically down the mountain. To a driver backing up, "STOP!!" will sometimes avert tragedy.

protected by Matt E. Эллен Nov 28 '14 at 9:09

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.