Sorry, mate

This piece, previously published on Barrier Free, was Tuesday’s Heckler column in the SMH. Link to it here or read it below.

Why do people constantly apologise to me? If I dash across a road in front of a car, chances are the driver will wind down the window and shout ‘sorry’. If I bump into a pram on a busy street, and wake a baby, the mother will usually say ‘sorry’. If I run over a man’s toe in the isle of a shop, he too will offer ‘sorry’. Sorry for what? Just for being there I guess.

It doesn’t stop at sorry. I also get called ‘mate’ and ‘matey’. Not so bad? Mate is defined by context in Australian English. ‘G’day mate’ is always a relaxed greeting, whereas ‘turn the music down mate’ spoken through a locked screen is one step short of threats of physical violence. With me, it is usually coupled with ‘how are you feeling mate?’. And, when spoken in a gentler tone than regular speech and often accompanied by stroking my hand or a reassuring palm on my shoulder, it feels a little like I’m living in an endless rerun of Andrew Denton’s brilliant 1990 program The Year of the Patronising Bastard.

Now, it’s admission time. I do look a bit odd. Due to my medical condition, I use a wheelchair. Due to weakness in my facial muscles, I have a fixed expression, somewhere between startled and bored. When I think of something funny I let out a big, inexplicable, laugh. I can’t talk.

A few weeks ago, I was walking the dog, using my chair, as I do most days. As I need my good left arm to drive the chair, I walk the dog on my right. A cyclist dashed past, hurrying as if he was late for a Tony Abbott look-alike contest, and shouted to me ‘tiges, you should have her on the left’. Tiges? Short for Tiger I guess. When was the last time you heard a 44–year-old able-bodied man called ‘Tiger’? A while, I suspect.  

My take on all this? I think ‘sorry’ is just a natural reaction to any minor collision or near-miss with a wheelchair. People assume it must be their fault. It’s not, but it’s understandable.  Mate depends on the user and the context. Genuine mates get a pass. But others should be cautious – especially with the tone and the touching. Do you regularly touch pregnant women on the belly without asking? Matey is worse. It’s akin, I think, to men who insist on calling all women ‘girls’ or ‘love’. It’s best avoided.

And my friend in lycra? Sorry, mate, you’re a twerp.

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One comment

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