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Is ‘Sorry’ Still a Dirty Word?

Author Sloane Crosley helps us get to the bottom of it

01.27.17
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Why do we say “sorry” so damn much? Is it because we’ve been conditioned to be polite to a fault or is it a way of minimizing ourselves right off the bat? Like every other tendency ascribed to women, there’s been a ton of ink spilled over this “problem.” But what if sorry is less a sign of weakness and more a gendered cudgel, paving the way for women to express opinion, to interject and to take issue?

On my walk home from the subway last night, I began thinking about the almost subconscious process of deciding to say sorry and what goes through my mind beforehand. I realized that our problem with “sorry” — or at least my problem with the word — all boils down to being likable.

Being nice, being liked, is drilled into women’s heads from the get-go. I know people for which it can be paralyzing. And so we try to come off as less harsh or demanding, to try to get people on our side by making ourselves immediately vulnerable.

We dialed up author Sloane Crosley (her meditations on the word in the The New York Times prompted a much larger conversation) to discuss the current state of “sorry.”

Sloane Crosley: It will be a miracle if all of us — four women — can make it through this conference call without apologizing for talking over each other.

Amelia Diamond: We should count the sorry mentions.

Sloane: The way I used the word sorry is the way that a lot of very successful, professional women who I know use it: kind of aggressively, as though it might trigger something in the other person who will think, “Oh my gosh, not only should you not be apologizing, I should be apologizing,” and all your problems will have vanished. But when you say, “I’m sorry, but could you not play your music at five in the morning,” you’re not apologizing.

A lot of people wrote [think pieces in response to the Times piece] like, “I’m sick of people telling women what to do, especially women telling other women what to do,” and I thought, oy. I’m not doing that. Say you’re sorry if you want. I am simply advocating for women to say what they mean. An apology is to ask for forgiveness, and I don’t think people are asking for forgiveness when they use it in the way I described.

Leandra: Well I completely agree with you. To me, an apology feels like either a summoning for forgiveness or an acknowledgement of having fucked up, right?

Sloane: Right.

Leandra: Part of the reason this conversation came up internally and why we wanted to have a round table on it is because there were two schools of thought within the office: there were the people who believed that the word was integral to the manifestation of a polite society, and then there were those who felt like it was a word that shouldn’t be included at all.

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Amelia: You can get as nitty-gritty with “sorry” as you want, whether you’re talking about the actual word (in which case, you can simply replace “sorry” with “pardon” or “excuse me” and there you go) or in terms of apologizing for everything and anything including existing. Or, as you said Sloane, using it aggressively. Or passive aggressively?

Sloane: It’s become a replacement for “um.” That’s how ubiquitous it is and that is what I object to. “Excuse me” is just not as common. Another thing that happened after the piece is that some people felt that I was advocating rudeness, that women should never apologize. That’s not it. There are occasions where you need sorry.

Leslie: You’re really damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Women use the word “sorry” to get across what they need to in certain situations because if they speak plainly, without any sort of brashness, their requests are taken with a sense of aggression that men’s straightforward requests are not. And so we’ve learned to manipulate the system, for better or for worse. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg arguments. Do we need more women to speak plainly in order for subsequent generations of women to be able to speak plainly and not have to say sorry and contort themselves?

Sloane: I think so. I understand that if everyone around you is behaving a certain way, and everybody, male and female, in your world expects you to be that way, it’s hard to break off from the herd. But now more than ever, it’s important for women not to contort themselves verbally. Our voices are so incredibly important. Since you asked earlier how I feel since the article, I believe in it all the more since I wrote it. But I get it: You don’t want to be perceived a certain way.

Leslie: I have tried not to say sorry because when I have been in rooms with other senior people in the past, I’ve noticed that if you enter and say a word like, “sorry,” it immediately puts you into a position where you’re projecting some sort of a weakness.

Leandra: Sloane, your story blew up two years ago and there have been a million thought pieces since, including our “A Week Without Sorry” article. But it’s that bit about where we are culturally and why it’s ever more important for women to own what they say that strikes me. It’s almost as though this isn’t even actually about “sorry,” but is so much larger.

Sloane: “Sorry’” is one of the many vestigial tails that women have to lose. With the new government taking shape I just feel like there’s no time. It’s funny. I went to the Women’s March in Washington this past weekend. Michael Moore spoke at the rally about taking action, becoming an activist, getting involved and even running for office if you have to, and he said something like, “I know what you’re thinking. You’re shy and you don’t want to do it. Shy people, you have two hours to get over it.” It was very funny and charming. That’s sort of how I feel with the back-and-forth of should we say [sorry] or should we not.

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Amelia: There’s a time and a place for “sorry.” I was at hot yoga yesterday, and afterward everyone was all sweaty and clamoring over one another and trying to find their bags and their shoes and it was a sea of a million sweaty sorries. Everyone was sorry for touching someone else, sorry someone touched them, sorry for the sweat.

Leandra: Was it mostly women?

Amelia: All women. But in the workplace, or anywhere I need to assert myself, I refer to my grandfather’s motto: never complain, never explain. Explaining can feel like apologizing: “Sorry this email response is late — yadda yadda yadda came up,” or,  “I cannot attend this event because of X, Y, Z and a thousand things and here are all of the reasons I swear I’m not a bad person!” Just, “I can’t come. Thank you so much for the invitation, I really appreciate it.” I just read something about eliminating the “hope you’re well” and the “best” from emails, too. It’s sort of under the same umbrella: not to be rude, but to get to the point!

Sloane: There’s this funny strain of narcissism in the “I’m sorry” and the same thing with “best.” Nobody’s actually paying attention to you saying those things or not saying those things. Unless there’s something really deadline-involved and everybody’s on a tight timeframe, if you wait an extra day or so to email someone back, you don’t have to say, “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you.” They were not waiting for you. You’re not that important.

Leandra: It’s almost exclusively a female problem. We’re consistently in pursuit of smoothing things over even before we’ve ruffled or riled them up.

Sloane: It’s just an energy waster. And a thought waster. You could be doing all of these other things. By the way, we should also say that British men also have this problem, it’s not exclusively women…

Amelia: The internet has perpetuated over-apologizing. It’s very easy to offend someone online. Tone can be misconstrued. There’s a lot of backtracking before you even begin. I come across so many opinion-based essays with qualifiers like, “Now don’t get me wrong, but…”

Sloane: The dancing! The dancing! I know. Or even texts. If I say, “See you there” with no exclamation point it’s like telling you I hate you.

Leandra: I’ve cut out all exclamations in emails to employees because I didn’t want to not use an exclamation and then have someone think I was mad at them. I’m not mad if I don’t use an exclamation point, I’m just sending an email.

Amelia: It’s just that there’s not a party at the end of this sentence. It’s all the same thing. We feel like we have to preface everything and “sorry” is a preface. It’s like adding “no offense.”

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Leandra:  It seems that the crux of the problem with the word “sorry” is that we use it as a defense mechanism. It’s because we feel like our place in the world is being compromised or threatened. And that’s really the root of the problem. When I recognize that, it makes me want to use sorry less. Does that make sense? Because I don’t want my place in the world to be threatened and I don’t want to perpetuate the threatening of my place.

Leslie: There’s a lot of apologizing for just being human. Like, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.”

Sloane: I don’t want to add to the list of things you can’t do. If we’re going to narrow “sorry” down to a specific way the word is used, maybe it just shouldn’t be used before you say things. It shouldn’t be used out of fear. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. If you’re asking permission for every single thing you do, it takes your power away.

Sloane Crosley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a Thurber Prize finalist), The Clasp, and How Did You Get This Number. A frequent contributor to the Times, she lives in Manhattan. Find Sloane at www.sloanecrosley.com and follow her on Tiwtter @askanyone.

Interview edited and condensed by Amelia Diamond. Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • Teresa

    I use a Google Chrome extension called “Just Not Sorry” that highlights seemingly weak words/phrases like “sorry,” “just,” “actually,” and “I think” in emails similar to spelling errors. It makes my emails sound so much stronger and more professional.

    • tmm16

      I also scan for these filler words before I send an email. The less words, the better. And sorry is one to leave out.

  • Cassidie Clayton

    My 2 year old daughter has started saying sorry for almost everything. It gives me so much guilt. Guilt that I, her full time parent, use it to stay passive and non threatening and I thought I was helping to form a better feminist than I am. I am trying to reframe her “sorry”s but it’s not working, probably because I still haven’t fixed it for myself. It kills me that it’s so hard to change this. It’s worse than a cussing habit. That’s probably because it does have underlying reasons. Maybe focusing on the problem and not worrying about the word will naturally weed it out? It’s so engrained that I feel likes failure even before starting.

  • tmm16

    Growing up, I said “sorry” so much that my grandma had to start correcting me numerous times. Now, it’s a word I try to eliminate from my vocabulary, unless I have truly done something that negatively affected another being or made a big mistake that has consequences. As Beyoncé would say, I’m not sorry.

  • Interesting read. I’ve never thought of this as a female problem, but as a human problem in general. I know men that are shy, quiet, and say sorry just as much as I do. To me it’s just constantly wanting to be polite.

  • Clara

    Just this morning I got on a full train and this guy was sitting there blocking two seats with his bags. My first impulse was to say sorry but could he maybe please put his bags in the overhead bins if it isn’t too much of a hassle. But really, this guy was kind of ridiculous, so I got it together and just told him I would like to sit here, could he put his bags up? He grumbled a bit but complied immediately. Pretty sure, it would habe been more of a deal if I had asked him in the more polite way as it would have seemed less reasonable a request (to him).

  • min sa

    this article stressed my canadian ass out

  • Nobody uses sorry out of context more than British people! We’re always ‘sorry’ and ‘afraid’.

    “I’m afraid we can’t…..” WHY ARE YOU AFRAID!!!

  • YES. Dirty word, definitely. I do find it’s more common among women, usually. It’s overused so much that I think it’s lost much of its meaning.

  • PCE

    This article has given me so much anxiety. Now I’m questioning myself – do I appear “weak” to others because this is how I speak? Or am I just seen as polite? I work in an industry where everything is aggressive, everything is a power play… so every now and then when I’m sending an email that ISNT meant to be aggressive I make an effort to lighten the tone and appear as polite as possible. Is that so wrong? Are you all going to look down on other women that say “sorry” more than you care to hear? Or are we going to back one another up no matter what??