I made two New Year’s resolutions for 2018:
1. Curse more.
2. Apologize less.
I made the first resolution to help liberate my words ― I had already decided to wildly split infinitives, and now I wanted to no longer hesitate when profanity would make a great emphasis. It has been pretty fucking easy. The second resolution has been pretty fucking hard. Plus, trying to curse more makes trying to apologize less that much more challenging. As I write this, part of me wants to apologize for saying “fucking” two times already (make that three times), but I will resist.
I made the second resolution because I want my words to stop cowering when they should stand tall. I observed my own over-apologizing behavior over the last four months, noting moments when my inclination is to say “sorry,” whether to soothe or defer, or because it is my default.
I recently rejoined office life after working from home for a few years and began reacquainting myself with charming small talk and sharing communal spaces with hundreds of other people. Beyond hearing myself talk about the weather a lot, I realized that I say “sorry” all the time. Overhearing others, I noticed who else excelled at over-apologizing, and they were mostly female. My observations matched linguistics professor Deborah Tannen’s research into workplace conversations in which she, too, found that women were more likely to offer apologies. When we utter these kinds of apologies, we are participating in what Tannen calls a type of “conversation ritual.” While men want to maintain a power balance, women want to sympathize. I even considered apologizing just now for what might come off as a gender-based generalization, but I will resist again, dammit.
I dabble in standup comedy (here, I could legitimately apologize to those who’ve heard my works in progress, but I’ll say “thank you” instead). I go to comedy open mics ― where comedians test out new material in front of each other, plus a wayward tourist or two. At a recent mic, I was one of only two women out of 25 comedians in the room, and I didn’t notice any particular patterns in the chit-chat. Two days later, I went to an open mic where there were only two guys in an entire group of over 25 comedians. I heard the same number of sex jokes at each gathering, but a stream of whispered apologies flooded the woman-dominated event. “Sorry, is this seat taken?” “Sorry, is that your beer?” “Oops, I just need to squeeze past you. Sorry!” These “sorry’s” pinged around the basement bar all night.
Hearing so many apologies from women, an observer might conclude that we are more offensive than men and must therefore compensate for our terrible behavior. However, the research suggests that women say sorry more because we are so fluent in apologease. Psychology professor Karina Schumann and her colleagues investigated gender differences in a study of self-reported offenses and apologies. They found that women not only apologized more than men, but they also reported more offenses than men. “This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” Schumann and her colleagues explained. Men apologize too, but we women specialize in it. Another study found that women rated three different kinds of offenses as more severe than their male counterpoints did.
“Before we women even open our mouths, our words feel like an imposition rather than a contribution, and thus we feel we need to say “I’m sorry” to cushion the impact. In fact, sometimes it seems like women apologize for just plain existing.”
In reality, women aren’t more offensive than men, but we sure do feel like we are, thanks to coaching from society and each other. Before we women even open our mouths, our words feel like an imposition rather than a contribution, and thus we feel we need to say “I’m sorry” to cushion the impact. In fact, sometimes it seems like women apologize for just plain existing.
Women end up saying “I’m sorry” even when the situation doesn’t require it. Tannen explains that this kind of “sorry” operates as a “conversational smoother.” As she describes in her book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work, a conversational apology in this kind of situation is not about accepting blame, but rather conveying, “I’m sorry that happened.” When I say an unneeded “I’m sorry,” I am trying to soften the blow of whatever has just befallen you or gotten you down. Throughout the day, I toss piles of these conversational pillows out to cushion other people when they don’t actually need it. Many women have an impulse to smooth things over, creating an environment full of too many apology-shaped throw pillows. This is caring and friendly, but often entirely unnecessary, not to mention exhausting.
Of course, sometimes an apology is completely appropriate ― when a wrongdoing, whether intentional or not, should be acknowledged and addressed. I’m focusing on those other moments when a simple “excuse me,” “thanks” or even a nod would suffice. No smoothing necessary.
The other day as I walked down the stairs, a woman walking up the same staircase tripped. She looked up and apologized. Perhaps she said it to me, but her stumble hadn’t wronged me and she didn’t inconvenience anyone else either. Perhaps she said it to the staircase, but I don’t think those stairs minded much. Her “I’m sorry” drifted off to join the cloud of other unneeded apologizes uttered in the building that day.
To preempt things by expressing that you feel sorry all the time undermines the apologizer ― she owed me no explanation or deference. To use a fully fledged “I’m sorry” for such minor things dilutes the apology itself. It also kept me from asking her if she was OK ― the more appropriate response to the moment.
That was just one quiet staircase, but when living in a crowded place like New York City, where you brush up against people all the time, apology opportunities (“apolotunities”) abound. One afternoon, I was riding the subway when another passenger spun his arm around and picked my right nostril. Surprising! Gross! Oddly intimate! We looked at each other in silence, and then I reacted to the stranger’s finger up my nose by saying, “I’m sorry.” I apologized for the very presence of my face. I often feel the need to apologize for taking up space, and as a tall woman, that burden feels that much larger and creates even more apolotunities.
“I had to nudge someone’s lunch bag over in the office fridge to make room for mine. I caught myself apologizing out loud to a sandwich. I’m sure it still tasted fine, but my words did not.”
I even apologize to entities who can’t understand me. I recently cooed “I’m sorry” to my cat for not sharing my food with her (stuff she shouldn’t be eating, by the way). I don’t know if she could tell why I was apologizing, but she’s female, so maybe she gets it too.
I worried that this very piece was too bold and I nearly scrapped it ― another form of apology. That very day, I had to nudge someone’s lunch bag over in the office fridge to make room for mine. I caught myself apologizing out loud to a sandwich. I’m sure it still tasted fine, but my words did not. I picked this piece back up and kept writing.
Inspired by Helen Reddy’s song “I am Woman (Hear Me Roar),” I started calling these moments “I am woman, hear me apologize” and posting them on Twitter from the account @HearMeApologize. I can’t fucking* wait to hear from you about your own apology tales. I hope these sorry stories will help me own my apologies when truly appropriate, and put an end to saying “I’m sorry” when it’s simply a reflex in response to what our culture has taught me about how women should negotiate with the world around them. I’m not asking for men to apologize more (except for nosepicker dude), but rather encouraging everyone to apologize with purpose.
Finally, I do have one apology I want to profess. I apologize to you, my dear apology, for overusing you. I vow to use you only when appropriate in order for us both to have more meaning. I want to worry less about smoothing things over with an apology, even if I risk leaving situations a little more jagged. I aim not only to redeem myself, but also the very words “I’m sorry.”
*See Resolution 1 above.