Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve picked up an annoying habit: I cannot stop apologising.
For those who know me in real life, this is very strange indeed. It’s not that I’m against a well-deserved “sorry.” Instead, it’s that I’m finding myself uttering the phrase for things I’m not actually sorry about, like asking someone to move down on the tram or asking my neighbours to turn down their music at 2 a.m. (Yes, I’ve become that person.)
I like to think that I’m a pretty confident person. I speak up in meetings. I have a lot of opinions and I’m not shy about sharing them. And yet, so often I’m preceding—and diminishing— what I’m saying through my apologies.
Sorry has become my default word, so much so that sometimes I find myself wondering what the hell I’m apologising for as I’m uttering the word. And the more I think about it, the more it feels like I’m apologising for taking up space in the world, for daring to make a request. Even the examples I chose for this post all involve asking for something.
I can’t pinpoint when this began, but it’s really frustrating. It feels like the more I notice how many micro-accommodations women are forced to make all day—squeezing onto a tram seat while the guy next to me manspreads, having to reassure the guy who stepped directly in front of me and began giving his order at the coffee shop while I stood there, all 5’1” and ignored, that no, it’s totally fine—the more “sorrys” I’ve been dropping.
It also seems that I’m not alone. When I recently brought up this phenomenon to some girlfriends, a few shared that they’ve found themselves doing the same thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of my male friends could relate. One common theory is that women apologise more because we’re so afraid of being considered impolite. I understand it, but I don’t totally buy it.
Neither does Sloane Crosley. In a 2015 piece for The New York Times, she argues that all the “sorrys” we’re sprinkling into our interactions with others are actually “tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic.”
We’re apologising not because we’re “sorry” at all, but because it’s too impolite to say what we’re really thinking, which is “what the fuck?” or “you should know better” or “why am I having to ask for this again?” We use them in situations where it seems obvious that we’re not at fault, but rather the other person is. Perhaps our sorry will prompt their own apology. We’re annoyed, but we’re not “allowed” to actually sound annoyed/angry/upset.
As Crosley explains, these sorrys are a way for women to be assertive. But because our “assertive apologies” are couched in passive language, we’re minimising whatever comes after them. Instead of sounding confident or direct, we’re coming off as passive aggressive, and drowning out our own demands in the process.
So what’s next?
I’m going to try and slow down. I want to swallow those sorrys as they rise up in me, and instead allow myself to actually ask (or better yet, say) what I want. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I hope you try this, too. We deserve to have our needs heard.
And if that doesn’t work, I will be sure to elbow the person on the tram as I squeeze on by.