Picture this: you’re standing in a crowded coffee shop and someone slams into your shoulder as they pass you. You quickly spin around, look at the perpetrator and say… “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” If you’ve ever apologized for something you didn’t need to, you’re not alone. Research shows that women apologize more than men because they believe they are committing more offenses throughout the day. So that “sorry” you insert before asking someone to pass you a pen? It’s likely a man wouldn’t feel he was offending anyone by asking.
This isn’t a new or rare phenomenon. The compulsion women feel to cushion, to put others at ease, to make sure everyone in the room (or on the email) is OK — it’s endemic. And while not every woman behaves this way, we’re often expected to and face blowback or other challenges at work when we don’t.
When Sarah noticed how much she and her female colleagues apologize at work, she got curious about why she apologized for things and used qualifiers like “just” and “sort of” constantly. And she started paying attention to the message she was sending her colleagues (I’m not confident) and how it made her feel about herself (small and crappy).
She decided to nix “I’m sorry” from her vocab unless she actually wanted to apologize for something, and she invited Amy to be her co-conspirator. As a serial apologizer, Amy was game. They shared wins, fails, encouragement and aha moments with each other on The Juggle’s Slack workspace.
Amy [June 10, 2:18 pm]
I’ve said “I’m sorry” so many times today I can’t keep count. I should carry around one of those clickers bouncers use to count people coming into the bar.
I think part of it’s that I made a mistake at work this morning, and the regret I feel about that is infecting all of my subsequent interactions. It’s like when you mistakenly say a bad word or something awkward and then can’t stop repeating it.
Sarah [June 10, 3:24 pm]
Yes! Sometimes when you’re trying super hard not to do something, you do it the most.
As far as my conscious brain knows, I’ve avoided all sorries and unneeded qualifiers so far today. I haven’t had many meetings, so that’s made it easier.
I did have a close call on email, however. I was sending a colleague a weirdly formatted reference article and started to type, “Sorry, weird formatting.” But I didn’t write that article and don’t need to apologize for something I DID NOT DO AND HAVE NO CONTROL OVER AND ISN’T IMPORTANT, so I deleted that shit. Not sorry!
Amy [June 10, 9:30 pm]
Hell yeah! You’re right; I’m paying closer attention to it so I’m noticing it more. But I swear I don’t normally say “I’m sorry” this much.
I’m wondering if this is connected to something else I observed about myself today: my body language. I don’t know if you ever do this, but I found myself shrinking. I kept pulling my cardigan sleeves down over my hands, folding my arms across my chest and hunching. It was like I was trying to make myself smaller. Like I thought I was taking up too much space. This is what needlessly apologizing feels like. It’s like saying, “Excuse me for taking space. For having ideas. For asserting myself in the world.”
Sarah [June 10, 9:37 pm]
YES. Oh my god I think about this a lot. It’s shocking how much we’ve internalized this need to be smaller. It’s not enough that we need to be thin; we need to literally twist ourselves into pretzels so that we take up as little room as possible. And, yes, this is a metaphor for everything.
Emilie Aries gave a talk at my office last week and she asked everyone in the room how women sit. She then asked how men sit, and immediately every woman in the room uncrossed their legs, relaxed their bodies and took up a bunch of room. It was so illuminating. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since then and trying to get comfortable taking up more space physically if it feels good.
I recently read “The Nordic Theory of Everything,” which argues that people in Nordic countries feel more free and less stressed than those in the U.S. because egalitarian government policies provide them much more support. When discussing the book with a friend who has spent time in Sweden, she told me she noticed a physical difference in the way Nordic women carry themselves, “as if they had a right to be there.” I’ve thought about this a lot since then and want to carry myself that way. Bucking subconscious internalized norms (like making yourself physically small) is so hard and feels sort of revolutionary. (I almost wrote “I might be exaggerating” before that last sentence. OMG resisting qualifiers like that is HARD.)
Amy [June 11, 1:13 pm]
Apology fail this morning: My co-worker asked me and a few others to help her brainstorm about something. After I shared a bunch of ideas, I apologized. I think the spirit of my apology was that I felt bad for creating work for her. Now she has to sort through everything and figure out which suggestions to implement. So… I was saying “I’m sorry” for doing what she asked us to do, basically. What the fuck!? Not only does this make NO sense, it also presupposes that she’s incapable of doing her job, which is not what I think.
This experience got me thinking about how this behavior affects the person on the other side of the apology, which reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a yoga teacher about how apologizing to your students affects their experience in your class. This teacher had apologized for some small mistakes during class, most of which students wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. The problem is, suddenly you’ve distracted your students from why they’re there in the first place (whatever it is they want to get out of your class) or, worse, they’re annoyed at or feeling sorry for you for “messing up.” You’re basically putting it on them to figure out why you apologized and how they should respond.
Going back to my experience at work, my co-worker was probably confused or irritated because she had to decide how to deal or not deal with my apology. I basically created unnecessary emotional labor for her. So I’m trying to keep this in mind as extra motivation to stop saying “sorry” so much.
Sarah [June 11, 2:58 pm]
I love how you’re thinking about the emotional labor aspect here. It’s like pushing yourself to a new level of actual accountability for other people’s feelings and energy. There are times when an apology takes up even more space than the original offense. For example, think of when someone shows up late to something and then gushes on and on about how sorry they are and why and blah blah blah. It’s like, just move on already and stop looking for me to tell you “it’s OK” or cater to your discomfort.
A grad school professor once told us to never apologize for anything other than something that was truly egregious or offensive. As in, don’t even apologize for being late to things. I think his point was about not showing weakness in an academic or professional setting. But it’s something I think about.
Amy [June 11, 3:16 pm]
I’m open to the idea of not apologizing for being late but think I’d have a hard time in practice. When I’m late to something, I’m concerned I might be sending a message of either, “I didn’t care enough about this event to plan ahead to show up on time,” or, “I don’t value your time,” even if that’s not how I feel or what I intended. I know not everyone feels this way and loved Jen and Alyssa’s differing perspectives on the issue.
Sarah [June 12, 1:05 pm]
I’ve had some big not apologizing victories today. I had scheduled a video call with a colleague and couldn’t get my sound to work. I tried to troubleshoot, then needed to restart my computer, which meant we started the meeting almost 10 minutes late. I messaged my colleague when I realized I was having trouble and fought the instinct to apologize (I didn’t cause my computer’s volume not to work) and instead said, “Thanks for your patience!” Then, I resisted apologizing at the end of the call and thanked him for his patience again. It felt good! I agree that apologizing for something small like that is like throwing this weird emotional wrench into things, and it felt like I was respecting myself more by not taking responsibility or blame for something that I didn’t cause.
The apologizing thing is so ingrained in us, and with it this assumption that we are to blame or guilty of something, and that we’re the ones who have to apologize to make other people comfortable. I’m not sorry for anything today! (Yet.)
Amy [June 14, 9:48 am]
I love “thanks for your patience” in your video call experience, and that you resisted the urge to apologize! I also like this because it’s framing it in a positive way: “I see you being a good human and giving me some space to sort out this thing that I can’t control and is delaying us a bit.”
By the way, I looked up the word “sorry” and here’s what I found: feeling regret or penitence. Synonyms: regretful, remorseful, contrite, repentant, rueful, penitent, conscience-stricken, apologetic, abject, guilty, guilt-ridden, self-reproachful, bad, ashamed, shamefaced, sheepish. The ones that linger for me are ashamed, guilt-ridden, self-reproachful, guilty.
Sarah [June 15, 10:40 am]
The building I work in has loads of staircases, doors and foot traffic which leads to lots of opening doors “into” someone who was about to pull it open on the other side. I let an “I’m sorry” fly yesterday when I did this, but I’d like to incorporate “excuse me” more into my vocab for situations like this. No one is at fault, it’s a blameless and constant occurrence and I’d like to make my own language toward myself less guilt- and blame-based.
I also wrote an email to someone and wanted to say something really positive at the beginning, but felt self-conscious about it. So I started to qualify it by writing “At the risk of sounding cheesy…” but at the last minute decided to remove it. I don’t need to be self-deprecating, I can just feel a positive feeling and share it!
Do you ever apologize for things you’re not actually sorry about? Tell us about it.