Dear World, Sorry For Nothing.

“It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for” – Amy Poehler

I had a lot of New Year’s resolutions this year. I promised to cool it on the midnight snacks, to keep in better touch with my pen pals, and to give myself a little more ‘me time’. I also vowed to stop apologizing in situations that demand no such thing.

So I’m sorry, but I won’t be saying ‘sorry.’ Don’t take it personally; a lot of people won’t be getting an apology from me.

Why?

For so many women, apologies are deeply embedded into our concept of politeness. From our early teen years, the phrase “I’m sorry” has somehow become second nature to our most basic confirmatory sentences.

“Hi, sorry, could I just get a small coffee?”

“Sorry, I just have a question…”

“I’m so sorry, did you want to use that pen?”

Yes, of course apologizing is not exclusively used by people who identify as female, but it is certainly a dominant characteristic of our gender. So why are women always apologizing?

A Tolerance for Rudeness.

One study suggests that women are so concerned with being perceived as rude or ‘a bitch’ that we go out of our way to ensure we don’t present that way. As a result, women hand out apologies like Oprah hands out cars. According to Psychological Science, “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” and that is why we compensate with apologies and avoid being direct in our speech (even when circumstances demand it).

I don’t buy this. Women don’t have a lower tolerance for rudeness. If anything, we have an exceptionally high tolerance given all the crap with which we have to deal.

A Polite Middle Finger.

Another theory, posited by Sloane Crosley of New York Times, is that women apologize so frequently because it is their passive aggressive way of trying to get an apology from the other person. She says that when a woman confronts someone about an issue – let’s say someone smoking in a waiting room – and asks, “I’m sorry, but would you mind putting out your cigarette”, what they are saying is very different from what they mean. The ‘sorry’ is not an actually apology or even an attempt to be inconspicuous, but “a poor translation for a string of expletives”. Crosley says that these apologies are a woman’s way to be assertive. Making our point through an act of passive-aggressiveness.

If you do ascribe to Crosley’s theory of the silent swear, you can see systemic factors at play. What is most troublesome for women is not what we say, but what we fail to say. By not saying “listen, what you are doing is inconsiderate” and opting for “sorry, would you mind turning down your Swedish House Mafia at 3am on a Tuesday?” makes women surrender control in a situation. Saying sorry when it is not warranted detracts from the message.

I am not completely sold on this analysis either (though it sits better with me than the ‘threshold’ theory). While this may be a tactic used by some women, I don’t believe giving a secret middle finger is the underlying motive of most women. It is something deeper and it is something more concerning.

Taking up Time & Space.

I argue that women constantly apologize, bending over backwards trying to please everyone, because we have been socialized to believe that women who acquiesce are desirable. Women who are compliant and women who ruffle few feathers are the best kind of women.

We have been conditioned to pose every statement as a question (a whole other issue) and say sorry whenever we can slip it into a sentence, because we are taught to apologize for taking up time and space. By saying sorry for raising our hand in class, we apologize for making an observation that a man could have made instead. By saying ‘sorry’ when asking the server to send back an incorrect meal order, we are apologizing for making ourselves seem ‘high-maintenance’ and ‘demanding.’

Society has taught us that our words, time and space are less valuable than that of our male counterparts and that we better have a damn good reason for exercising it. Women brave enough to operate at an equal plane as men are branded ‘she-devils’, ‘bitches’, and ‘crazy.’ Too often women who are assertive and stand their ground become exiled to the ‘undesirables’ pile, tossed to the back of the line, and deemed ineligible for promotions.

This is wrong on so many levels. Wrong, that it takes a ‘brave’ women to occupy the space to which she is entitled. Wrong, that society punishes women for speaking their minds. Wrong, that women feel compelled to apologize for basic daily actions.

And none of this will change if women keep saying sorry. If we continue to apologize when a man bumps into us on the sidewalk, or when a bartender messes up our order, or when we ask a question at a conference, we perpetuate the notion that we are less worthy. We reinforce our own devaluation and diminution. 

So, I’m sorry… but I’m just not all that sorry.

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4 comments

  1. Christine Skene · · Reply

    Thank you Paula for not being sorry!! Not saying sorry is the hardest thing to do!

    1. Thanks Christine – I hope you are not sorry either!

  2. And we apologize to our female friends too …. that’s what I noticed …. women implicitly reinforce these standards among each other …. failure to comply with indirect, veiled communication can mean subtle expulsion from “the club”.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to simply state what I think and feel without trying too hard to say it nicely.

    1. So glad to hear it Priya. It is important to set a good example for our friends!

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