The five words you need most

Why being able to say 'excuse me' is indispensable.

A friend wondered aloud the other day whether, in this age of information overload, responding to someone's e-mail message with a simple "thanks" is a good idea. Maybe in the ping-pong-ping of electronic correspondence, that last ping is unnecessary. Maybe it's a kindness not to give someone one more thing to look at, she suggested.

Hmm. How can we not have time to say "thank you"? Yes, surely, there are routine messages to large distribution lists that don't call for a punch of the "reply all" button. But isn't grateful communication almost always a good thing?

What does it tell us that "thank you" is one of the first words anyone learns in a new language? It's a sign of civilization, surely.

After my exchange with my friend, I gave a little thought to what should be in anyone's bare minimum vocabulary in a new language. I came up with please, thank you, hello, goodbye, and excuse me as the five essentials. Goodbye may be expendable; you can just wave instead. But excuse me is indispensable.

I know, this little pack of five is to real mastery of a language what those little sewing kits they have in the nicer hotels are to custom tailoring. But if you've ever popped a button on a business trip, you know those kits can come in handy.

It is often for lack of words, or more broadly, lack of ways to signal to one another, that human beings get into trouble with one another.

I've long had a theory that insofar as relations between drivers on the road are less than civil, it's because they have no way to signal to one another "I'm sorry" – no way to apologize.

Cars have had horns almost from the beginning, but not for apologizing. Au contraire, car horns seem to have been developed not just as a warning signal but as a "get out of my way, I'm coming through" signal.

A little further digging into the subject suggests that in India, the car horn is almost an extension of speech. A traveling Western blogger wrote a few months ago, "I could write novels about the Indian use of the auto horn. Sometimes, I dream about it. There's no limit to the use or volume of them on Indian vehicles. It's astounding. At home, we use it to signal danger. Here, it's used to signal...everything."

A Canadian family taking a global sabbatical a few years ago had a similar report on their website, including a horn signal for "I'm just going to drive about 1 cm from your back bumper for a while, OK?"

It's true that in many places there's a more or less gentle tap of the horn that signals "Hey, pal, the light's changed," or, to the one you're picking up at the station, "Over here!" But in much of the world, the application of the car horn is, in the main, an act of aggression.

I've had some other reminders of the trouble people can get into if they don't have a way to say, verbally or otherwise, "I'm sorry."

In my first year as a reporter, I covered a murder trial involving two men, father and son, who couldn't find words to talk with each other to resolve their differences. In the end, the younger man fatally shot his father. The memory of that case has stayed with me.

What may be a counterpart to that experience was something that I read a few years ago but that has come back to thought in recent days. It was a remarkable account in The New Yorker of an American Army officer in Iraq who calmed the angry crowd surrounding his men by ordering the soldiers into an attitude of respect – of saying, in deed if not in words, "Excuse me":

"Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture – almost Biblical. 'Take a knee,' the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses. The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armor and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw."

It was a vivid illustration of the value of language that acknowledges, and yields to, the "other."

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