A Week Without Sorry

Margaret Boykin | July 21, 2015

And what it taught me about respect

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I’ve always had a problem over-apologizing. At my first paid job at a talent agency, I apologized constantly for things outside of my control, assuming a more experienced assistant could have managed to get that exclusive reservation or forced that writer to send in their signed contract. Finally, when I was in the middle of apologizing for another minor error I hadn’t caused, my boss interrupted me.

“Stop. Stop apologizing for things that aren’t your fault,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll just make people think everything’s your fault. And it’s not. Only a lot of it is. Okay?”

“Sorry,” I said, and he threw up his hands, defeated.

In Sloane Crosley’s “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop,” the author views effusive female apologies as a “Trojan horse for genuine annoyance,” a sort of verbal tic left over from centuries of women having to dress up a request in pretty, digestible language to get what they want. Crosley thinks this is a behavior we need to ban, that “it comes off as passive-aggressive,” and we’re better off without excessive apologies.

Per her article’s advice, I decided to get rid of “sorry” for one week, but found it difficult to shake. Instead of using “sorry,” I found myself filling its place with a thousand other placating tics — throwing the word “just” in every single sentence (“Hey! Just wondering if you could just maybe send me the correct number?”); saturating my emails with a dramatic number of exclamation marks (“Would love to get this mtg set!!!!!!!!!”); smiling maniacally.

The uncomfortable, apology-free week made me realize that my tendency toward over-apologizing comes from a place not of passive aggression, but of wanting to be liked. Instead of banning sorry, perhaps what I needed to rid myself of was an inherent need to please — which is easier said than done.

We still live in a world where powerful, demanding female executives are referred to as “crazy” or “bitchy.” It makes sense that women feel the need to consciously cloak their “fuck yous” in a sorry, the way Crosley describes. There’s still the concern that if we push too hard, we might be rejected, that if we don’t seem likable, we won’t get anywhere. Being humbly apologetic can be a necessary, useful business tactic — so is it my responsibility to remove sorry from my vocabulary, or society’s responsibility to stop defining the word as weak?

Ann Friedman believes it’s up to society to change the sorry game and wrote a story that followed Crosley’s, aptly titled, “Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?” She believes women shouldn’t be forced to “question [their] voice.” If all women were to change their speech patterns to fit a prescribed, “powerful” norm, our cadence “would lose the casual, friendly tone we wanted it to have and its special feeling of intimacy…it wouldn’t be ours anymore.”

But I disagree. While I think that the ability to be kind and relatable is just as powerful a negotiating tool as brisk authority, I still maintain that my first boss was right: that to be taken seriously, one must speak with certainty and clarity, two things that throwaway words like “sorry” can undermine.

To suggest that we all stop apologizing entirely or disregard the notion of being kind and polite is not the answer, but neither is allowing ourselves to fall back on nervous tics. Rather, it’s remembering that the desire to seem “nice” shouldn’t preclude our ability to do our jobs in an efficient, self-assured manner, and that being confident is never something to be sorry for.

Feature Image by Wayne White.

sorry-curvy

  • I’ve been trying to say sorry less too! Specifically at the gym, if I was standing where someone needed to get by or the other way around, I would always say “oh, sorry” and move. I now say excuse me instead. I’ve been paying extra attention to the times I do say sorry and if it is something I should truly be sorry for, and often times, it’s not. That Amy Schumer sorry sketch portrays this perfectly.

    http://videos.nymag.com/video/Inside-Amy-Schumer-I-m-Sorry#c=8680372DVZQXJ0MY&t='Inside Amy Schumer’: I’m Sorry

  • i completely agree with this, especially since by apologizing, you’re basically accepting faults that most of the time aren’t even yours!!! It’s definitely something I’ve been working on over the past months. It feels good to be able to stand up for myself, accept responsibilities that ARE mine, and disregard those that aren’t. it’s a skill every future leader needs to develop 🙂

  • Lua Jane

    Great article Margaret. I love that it doesn’t focus on our constant need to appologize as a character flaw but as a very socially conditioned trait that most women share. I do however agree with Ann Friedman in as much as certain speech patterns and cadence is inherently feminine, and demanding that to change, so we could appear as more assertive and self assured is actually not feminist. Accepting us the way we are, and listening to our words regardless of the feminine maner they are delivered in would be.

  • I don’t tend to “oversorry” but may utter the word when genuinely feeling someone has just been treated to something they didn’t expect, if it is a private situation and I feel like spreading love and harmony, too (which, in my book, is legal if occuring for good reasons). But let me treat you to an experience form the other side instead.

    While sauntering around a Norwegian museum something on my right side caught my attention so strongly that I walked into a man standing in my way (I was walking on with my head turned to the right – as stupid as it sounds) before I could stop it. And while I was still at a loss for words (What have I done?!?! running through my bewildered brain cell), he started apologizing. And wouldn’t stop. As my husband put it later: He was basically apologizing for existing, being in the same museum as you and not having noticed you haven’t noticed him. This behaviour by this gentle British man confounded me even further, but it also made me angry: it was obviously my fault and if I had got a smidge of a chance to apologize, I might have felt a bit better. That way, I only felt worse for not watching my step and being dumb afterwards.

    • dustUP

      Whenever my best friends says “sorry” I answer with “you’re not sorry”, we giggle and keep on talking. Over 20 years of our friendship we discussed the “sorry” issue many times and came to conclusion that the difference in our usage of “sorry” stems from cultural difference and persons private space. She is Western European and
      her private space is much bigger than my Eastern European, therefore she has more need to apologize for intruding spaces of others. My background culture (or
      the lack of it) conditioned me to allow my friends closer to me and they don’t need to “sorry” or “please” for everything.I think it’s not just an issue of individual character but also a cultural one.

      • Lua Jane

        Where in Eastern Europe are you from? I’m curious because I’m a Balkan girl my self, and can relate.

        • dustUP

          Yep, I know you are :))
          I’m from Vojvodina.

          • Lua Jane

            Cool. It’s a beautiful part of the world. I’m from Bosnia.

      • While I do agree with your explanation, I must also admit my necessary private space is huge, too, despite my coming from the eastern part of Middle Europe 🙂 and not having had much space in life in general. I still need it very much and I have always tried to built it inwards, in my head (Which is why I try not to impose myself on others too much and may even apologize if not sure).
        I also know people from other cultures will apologize even if not guilty and who am I to prohibit them to do that, but … It can be quite a relief to be able to assume responsibility for a stupid deed, apologize and set things right. And if I get apologies instead, it is a bit as if I needed this polite help to come out of the stupid situation I caused and to come out sane and well… Which I would do in any case.

        • dustUP

          Yes, that museum episode was a special case. Next time you need to be faster!
          Also, saying “eastern part of Middle Europe” , it’s much more correct.

        • Has anyone else heard the saying (which may or may not actually be true) that the English constantly apologize for things they’re not responsible for?

          • I’ve seen and done it in London in 2012 – after a few hours I could feel when exactly a Londoner would say Sorry and I did it, too. It was fun, but the way we cast all those Sorries was so … noncommittal, like greeting someone in passing, acknowledging their presence without really noticing the person … That said, that (the Norwegian museum) was the first time (and before London) I realized some things one says about some nations might be actually true. But only after having processed my reaction, which took time 🙂

            I sometimes apologize to my husband if I have done something that I feel would disturb me – it is often something other people do not apologize for, but I really want him to feel well in our shared space so I inadvertently use my own criteria – and he does not like my sorries either. “Why are you apologizing, you haven’t done anything?!?” And all the while we know being careful about each other’s private space in our shared world is really important.

  • Megan Woods

    I was just thinking about this last night and how I need to stop saying ‘sorry’ all the time. I find I do it as a social tick- barely ever with friends and family but rather to as a disingenuous way to get strangers to like me. Just writing that out makes me see how stupid this is. Must. Stop. Apologizing. For. Existing.

  • Women apologize? And unicorns fly out of my butt.

    • Jin

      Ouch.
      edit: (you know, b/c horn)

  • Sonya

    I manage two younger female employees and have been telling them this, and all of the other women that I work with, for years. Men don’t apologize for bullshit that isn’t their fault and neither should we!

  • Love it. I’ve had a habit of saying sorry too much as well, and I’ve started replacing “sorry” with “excuse me,” which usually fits as a replacement. It helps to say something in its place, rather than quitting cold turkey.
    xx Lane

  • I was once ordering something from a Starbucks at work and I must have said something funny because the barista laughed and said “you’re funny” to which I said “oh, sorry”…after a few seconds she asked “did you just apologize for being funny?!”

    Needless to say, I can relate. But I have learned to only apologize (as your boss said) for the mistakes I am personally responsible for.

  • I love this so hard. Sorry not sorry.

  • maximie

    Great article. Lately Ive been thinking about a couple of situations i have found myself in. I was sitting in the bus (common where I live), there were seats available but as soon as a somewhat elderly person stepped in, I was almost giving up my seat. When someone spills something, I rush to help with cleaning it up. When Im with my bfs family, i feel the pressure of keeping the conversation going while my bf relaxes and takes part when he feels like it, not when the conversation requires it. So, Ive been thinking, is there a deep rooted unconcious “duty” for women (not all) to do these kind of things, is it kindness or could this be a “womens thing”? Thoughts anyone?

    • I think we’re programmed to be (and men are programmed to expect that we are) the “social smoothers”. Kind of like the middle children in a family are often the “peacemakers”. I find myself taking on the role of a kind of ‘hostess’ in certain social situations, making sure everyone is comfortable, included, and having a good time/not getting into stupid arguments that can blow up the whole gathering.

      • maximie

        Thanks for your answer, this was exactly what I was talking about! I have noticed this tendency over the past few years as I’m getting older and growing out of the “girl” phase and growing into this “woman” phase and into the “hostess” role. It annoys me and I can definitely now understand what my mother has been saying, I’m sure many have heard their mothers go on about “I’m not a maid in this house!!!” but still I can’t seem to help the behavior.

    • Ai-Ch’ng GB

      There’s nothing wrong with saying sorry for as many times as you can actually articulate and attach a tangible reason to your apology to the other person.

      “Sorry” is a word- a beautiful word that can heal wounds between friends or calm an irate stranger- IF it’s there’s a reasonable explanation for our apology. Otherwise, we demean the power of truly being sorry. And we become human doormats.

      The past few years, I have been trying to be more aware of how I impact on others- and if I can see that I’ve wronged them – or if the other person points out to me how they feel I have upset them, it does help all parties concerned if I at least say, “I’m sorry you feel that way, as I didn’t mean it that way at all/I won’t do it again” (depending on whether I can actually see at the time of apology whether what I’ve done has actually been upsetting, or simply misinterpreted by the other party.

      Too often, we think that “sorry” is an admission of our guilt. That it makes us the weaker party. Or that saying, “sorry” somehow indicts us. However, I’ve come to see that saying sorry doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt on the part of the apologiser. And if it’s seen that way by the other party, then so be it. We can’t change how others see or judge a situation. What’s most important is that we know our intention/guilt/innocence. And that we try to be peacemakers without becoming human doormats. Even if that means saying, “sorry, I didn’t know you feel that way”.

      As for needing to fill the gaps of stony familial silence- I get you on that. My in-laws and I are not at all close. For ten years on our short visits to see them, I’d try to keep the conversation going- ensure everyone is okay. They’re not at all chatty- even awkward- when I am around. However, my husband tells me when I am not with them, he and his parents seem to get along just fine and talk a lot.

      I now see that it’s just the chemistry- or lack of it – between my husband’s parents and I, which causes these silences. I’m fine with almost everyone else in his family and mine. And I’ve accepted that I don’t need to be super-chatty with them. Just go with the flow of the silence. Because there is really no point in going beyond the bare necessities of courtesy, with people who aren’t willing or able to go beyond the bare necessities of courtesy – boyfriend’s parents or not.

      We do end up with our partner’s families – as they do ours. No one is an island. And unless we are prepared to either chat our way through a few awkward silences throughout the year, or are happy to sit through those silences- then we should walk away from that relationship. I don’t say this lightly, as extended family can make or break the relationship.

      If we feel our partners are worth staying around for – despite these horribly uncomfortable situations, then great: stay with them. However, if our partners don’t help the situation and it upsets us beyond belief every single time they sit quietly and we chat incessantly through these family silences, then maybe this partner isn’t right for us. With this kind of situation, as with many, it all boils down to what we are prepared to live with.

  • Jamie Leland

    ““Stop. Stop apologizing for things that aren’t your fault,” he said. )“Otherwise, you’ll just make people think everything’s your fault. And it’s not. Only a lot of it is. Okay?””

    100% true. But while I agree that over-apologizing might be more common among the female population thanks to our socialization, I don’t agree that females need to dress down their speech patterns to sound more authoritative (i.e. male). I think there’s a difference between saying sorry in a way that accepts fault for mistakes that aren’t ours and using language to achieve a “casual, friendly tone.”

    If I use words that qualify or soften my statements, I’m using them because I’m trying to make my meaning more clear. In your example, you used the word “just” (although excessively) to convey that you weren’t angry about the mistaken number because writing “Please send me the correct number,” leaves the tone open to interpretation. Pointing out mistakes is usually uncomfortable for all parties involved and if there’s a way to make everyone feel more at ease, it’s not weak to do so. People smile to put each other at ease and convey a friendly, non-aggressive demeanor. Is smiling weak? Maybe to Jack Donaghy, but to the rest of us, it’s the simplest way to say, “We’re cool.”

    Women have long been recognized as innovators of language and my theory is that that’s because we derive a lot of our power from the way we communicate. We’re more able to say exactly what we mean because we’ve given ourselves the tools to do so. Uptalk, vocal fry and the use of “like” are considered vocal tics common to young females, but they’re beginning to be used more and more frequently among males and older generations. Why? Probably because they’re excellent ways to add nuance to communication. Language is our strength.

    I think what we’re really talking about here is a symptom of an underlying problem. Using “sorry” in a way that undermines us isn’t an annoying vocal tic, it’s a successful, if unintentional, verbal manifestation of the insecurity we’re feeling.

    Also, here’s another excellent article that has more on women and language innovation: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/science/young-women-often-trendsetters-in-vocal-patterns.html?_r=0

    • Sally Waits

      This is really an interesting angle I have never considered and got me thinking. It would be nice to give the ubiquitous “like“ a positive spin.

      In my personal experience, however, I only use these softeners because I feel uncomfortable standing my ground and stating straightforwardly what I actually mean. That is definitely something I learned through socialization, and it is annoying as hell.

    • I very much agree.

  • Hannah Cole

    You said it gurl!
    These things have been on my mind a lot lately – like the crazy stat that women get paid less purely because we don’t ask for more or demand it like men, it’s in our human nature.
    So my aim is to help start the woman revolution and stop us being disadvantaged because of our amazing personalities and social tact.

  • Sally Waits

    Great post. I am also trying to stop thanking people constantly, as I discovered that it is an expression of my own insecurity and low self-esteem.
    Thank you for doing your job. Thank you for not being mean. Thank you for acting like a decent human being.
    I am genuinely thankful, but decent human beings tend to get annoyed by that.

  • A [promissory] NOTE TO WOMEN:

    If you apologize a lot, I AM YOUR MAN. I can appreciate that you feel bad when you threw away my favourite whatevers. I will cherish the fact that you’re sorry you beat me with your belt. A woman who apologizes is what I’ve been waiting for all my life. I would be so… nay, AM grateful that you exist [to apologize]. We could be so happy together.

    Of course, you will leave me for a dude who will take your apologetic arse for granted because you’re a woman and that’s just what y’all do. But I figured there will be some great sex before that happens. (Maybe six more freebies afterwards.) 😀

    • Buri103

      Lol. The level of cringe inducing attention-whoring in this comment is hilar. So here, here is one reactionary comment for you, you floptastic sexist baby 😀

  • I actually have a hard time saying sorry. Or admitting I’m wrong, always a real struggle. So I guess I’m working towards the opposite. But I do see where you’re coming from.
    Another thing is, words one repeats too often tend to lose their value and credibility.

  • LaBoheme

    I’m British. I can’t get through the morning without saying “Sorry” at least half a dozen times.

  • I was never an over-apologizer, but I did use ‘sorry’ often enough to soften an opinion or a request. After I turned 30, it was like a light bulb went on in my head: why am I apologizing for things that 1) are not my fault and 2) I’m not really sorry for anyway? None of the people I respected did that. And plenty of the people I found irritatingly obsequious and prevaricating did. So I stopped. Mostly.

  • cc from PilchasyPintas

    I loved this article and couldn’t agree more, thank u!

  • Honestly, I think I developed this habit after moving to London! I don’t remember saying this before! Also, here it doesn’t seem to a woman only thing – everyone says sorry all the time. But I am definitely going to start paying attention.

    http://www.fashionandfrappes.com

  • linw85

    “No Unnecessary Apologies” is my resolution for 30, and it kicks ass so far. (It’s been a week, but still.) By switching my default from “sorry” to “not sorry”, I’ve allowed myself the right to exist, take up space, want things, need things, be good at things…unapologetically. You know, like a human!

  • Shauna

    Such a great piece! And conversely, as a manager in my career, I think I also say “thank you” too much – one employee told me to please stop. Can you imagine?! But, she was right. Saying thank you too much was a compensation for me “feeling bad” for asking employees to do something, which could make them feel like I felt they were incapable or like I didn’t have confidence in them to get simple work done if I said thank you too much or too enthusiastically. Over the years, I have tried to reign in both “sorry” and “thank you” – of course there is a time and place for both, it’s just about finding them!
    http://Www.cultivatedrevelations.com