Drivers have a tendency to get riled over the least little thing, such as a pedestrian.

I got to thinking about courtesy the other day when a woman hit me with her car. I want to stress that this was totally my fault. I was crossing a street in Miami, in a pedestrian crosswalk, and I saw the woman’s car approaching, and like a total idiot, I assumed she would stop. The reason I assumed this – you are going to laugh and laugh – is that there was a stop sign facing her, saying (this is a verbatim quote) “STOP.” I don’t know what I was thinking. In Miami, it is not customary to stop for stop signs. The thinking in Miami is, if you stop for a stop sign, the other motorists will assume that you’re a tourist and therefore unarmed, and they will help themselves to your money and medically valuable organs. For the same reason, Miami drivers do not interpret traffic lights the same way as normal humans do. This is what a traffic light means to a Miami driver:

GREEN: Proceed.

YELLOW: Proceed Much Faster.

RED: Proceed While Gesturing.

So anyway, there I was, Mr. Stupid Head, expecting a Miami motorist to stop for a stop sign, and the result was that she had to slam on her brakes, and I had to leap backward like a character in a rental movie on rewind, and her car banged into my left knee. I was shaken, but fortunately I remained calm enough to remember what leading medical authorities advise you to do if you’re involved in an accident. “Punch the car,” they advise. So I did. I punched the car, and I pointed to the stop sign, and, by way of amplification, I yelled, “THERE’S A STOP SIGN!” The woman then rolled down her window and expressed her deep remorse as follows: “DON’T HIT MY (UNLADYLIKE WORD) CAR, YOU (VERY UNLADYLIKE WORD)!”

I should have yelled a snappy comeback, such as: “OH YEAH? WELL, NOW, IN ADDITION TO MY KNEE, MY HAND HURTS!” But before I could think of anything, she was roaring away, no doubt hoping to get through the next intersection while the light was still red. The thing is, at the time I didn’t think this incident was in any way remarkable. I had no doubt that people all over America were shouting bad words and coming to blows with each other’s cars. It wasn’t until two days later that I began thinking that maybe we could all be a little more courteous. What got me thinking this was England. I went there to attend a wedding in a scenic area called Gloucestershire (pronounced “WOOS-ter”) near a lovely little town called Chipping Campden (tourism motto: “We’ve Got Your Sheep”).

I’m not saying that the English are perfect. Their electrical fixtures look and function like science-fair projects; their plumbing apparently was designed thousands of years before the discovery of water. Also their television programming is not so great. The TV in my room got four channels, and one afternoon the program lineup, I swear, was:

• Channel 1: A man talking about problems in the British gelatin industry;

• Channel 2: The national championships of an extremely slow-moving game called “snooker” (pronounced “WOOS-ter”);

• Channel 3: Another man (or possibly the same man) talking about problems in the British gelatin industry;

• Channel 4: A show (this is the one I ended up watching) in which five people were taste-testing various brands of canned beef gravy and ranking them on a scale of 0 through 10.

(Of course, we have bad TV shows, too. But thanks to cable, we have infinitely more of them.) My point is that the English aren’t better than us in every way. But they are definitely more courteous. It seems as though every time an English person comes even remotely close to being an inconvenience to anybody, he or she says, “Sorry!” Often this causes the other person to say, “Sorry!” for having been in a position to cause the first person to say, “Sorry!” This may trigger reflex cries of “Sorry!” from random passersby, thereby setting off the legendary Chain Reaction of Sorrys, which sometimes does not stop until it reaches Wales. I’m pretty sure that the queen, when she’s knighting somebody, taps him with her sword and says, “Sorry!”

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more of that spirit here? Wouldn’t it be pleasant if we tried a little courtesy, instead of shooting each other over trivial provocations? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when we irritated each other, we said, “Sorry!” and then shot each other? At least it would be a start!

In fact, I’m going to start right here and now. I’m going to address the end of my column to the woman who hit me with her car, in case she’s reading this: Whoever you are, I am sincerely sorry that I impeded your progress through the stop sign. And I am even more sorry that I hit your car with my fist. It should have been a hammer.

This classic Dave Barry column was originally published June 9, 1996.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.