“Tell your sister you’re sorry!” My mom used to threaten this after some childhood scuffle. She’d scowl from a doorway, eyeing the situation. Me, being the oldest, was more often beholden to apologize to my younger sister. I’d say it flatly, not sorry in the least. “Say it like you mean it!” My mom demanded I repeat my apology until she was satisfied it held the right amount of remorse. Then my sister and I continued playing, usually under a little grey cloud of resentment and annoyance until I could escape to my books and pretend like I didn’t have a sibling.
Oh, childhood. I’m sure many of can relate: all was not fair in playtime until someone said “sorry.” As we grew, this transaction expanded into the schoolyard, throughout academia, friendships, romantic relationships, and jobs. We’re adults now, and we still say “sorry.” Especially us women.
“For so many women […] apologies are inexorably linked with our conception of politeness. Somehow, as we grew into adults, ‘sorry’ became an entry point to basic affirmative sentences.” – The New York Times
Sorry! It’s polite! We say it when we’re conscious of a some kind of misstep. Accidentally butt in line? Sorry! Offend with a sarcastic comment? Sorry! Step on someone’s foot? Sorry! We want to verbally show we’re willing to correct an assumption, carelessness, or a mistake. The word smooths social interactions, and many arguments or disagreements have been cooled because someone had to be the first person to say they were sorry. Apologies are valuable in keeping relationships from disintegrating into pride or anger. How would anything ever get accomplished if no one was sorry and tried to right a wrong?
It’s true both men and women are prone to unnecessary apologies. But let’s think about how commonly women say they’re sorry for using their personal agency. I argue it’s more deeply instilled in the culture of being a woman to say we are sorry for, basically, being ourselves. The New York Times article references an Amy Schumer sketch that illustrates this point. At the fictional Females In Innovation Conference, Amy apologizes incessantly for the smallest things, until she eventually cringes, “I’m sorry for existing.”
“Men aren’t actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions,” said study researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It seems to be that when they think they’ve done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.” — Live Science
Amy’s sketch is a caricature, but it helps to reframe the intent behind when, why or to whom we say we’re sorry. We’re not trying to be callous, mean, or shame anyone for apologizing one too many times. It’s that we need to look at the things we’re saying sorry for. It’s a contrast used often, but when do we see panels of men apologizing for their work? Do men hold meetings and say, “I’m sorry about this”? Have male comedians made a name for themselves by standing at an open mic and apologizing for a joke? Extremely rarely. Look at most professions or social situations where, given a man or a woman, the woman will be the first to say they are sorry for something that’s commonplace or expected.
The New York Times also cites a study done by Psychological Science:
“According to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science, “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so are more likely to see a need for an apology in everyday situations. We are even apt to shoehorn apologies into instances where being direct is vital — such as when demanding a raise.”
If you’re the funniest girl in the room, and you’re stealing someone else’s thunder, don’t say sorry!
If you’re too tired to do the dishes and someone is griping there aren’t any clean plates, don’t say sorry!
If you take the last pair of shoes on sale, don’t say sorry!
If you have a strong opinion about a current event and you get sideways glances, don’t say sorry!
What are you sorry for in these instances? Sorry you have a keen sense of humor? Sorry you aren’t the Energizer Bunny and can’t keep the house clean all day? Sorry you’re fast and can spot a deal? Sorry you’re intelligent? See how silly it is?
It’s hard to get used to; don’t beat yourself up it you say sorry and reflect later that it was unnecessary. But after saying “sorry” one less time than usual, you’ll probably feel a slight difference. You’re not morphing into an ogre. You’re unburdening yourself from subconscious restrictions on your opinions and actions. You have those! They’re yours, and there’s no need to be sorry.
*I had to try really hard not to quote Beyonce again in the title (Becky with the good hair). Please appreciate that. But here’s an ear worm just to make your day. 😉