I turned too quickly in a store the other day and almost ran into a woman.  She apologized.

Working out next to me, a friend dropped her water bottle on the floor, and when I bent to pick it up, she apologized.   

During an interview with TIME Magazine, Greta Gerwig’s cell phone rang.  She apologized – and the interviewer documented – “Oh sorry; I have Enya as my ringtone.” 

WHY ARE YOU SORRY!?

1. I almost ran into you.  EXCUSE ME.

2. You didn’t mean to drop your bottle, and I was happy to help.  YOU’RE WELCOME.

3. The New York Times Magazine calls you “radically confident.”  You were only the fifth woman in 90 years to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director of a Motion Picture (for Lady Bird), and you’re apologizing for your ringtone?  EXCUSE YOU. 

Women apologize a lot.  And often for things out of their control or which frankly aren’t offensive. 

I have one friend in particular who apologizes so often and for such trivial things that I’ve taken to using a line from the book (and movie) I love you, Beth Cooper to bring it to her attention.  Beth is a popular girl whom the geeky protagonist Dennis confesses to love in a high school speech.  He’s surprised when she starts spending time with him and falls all over himself about it.  At one point, she says to him, “Stop apologizing for being yourself, Dennis Cooverman!” 

For me, this sums up a lot of the reasons I’ve found myself apologizing and observed other women doing the same – simply for being.  It’s as if we’re sorry for taking up space or for drawing any attention to ourselves whatsoever.  This concerns and saddens me.  So I’m waging a bit of a one-woman campaign against unnecessary apologies amongst my girlfriends (and some strangers).

I’m not the first to do so.  Pantene ran a “Not Sorry” commercial in 2014.  The comedy series “Inside Amy Schumer” has mocked women’s over-apologizing, and Amy herself publicly “gave up” her own habit of “apologizing before asserting” herself.  According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert on gender and workplace issues, frequent apologies “undermine your gravitas,” so Google Chrome’s 2016 “Just Not Sorry” extension highlights the use of the word in e-mails, specifically to bring it to the attention of female senders.  And this year for International Women’s Day, the young adult channel Freeform bleeped out every single “sorry” spoken by a woman on-screen, resulting in 50-some cover-ups in 24-hours.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for an abolition of sincere apologies.  Absolutely not.  When we fail to apologize for serious transgressions, we risk doing harm to relationships and, on a grander scale, threaten the framework of civilized society.  Politicians and others in positions of power are famous for failing to own their actions and inactions and refusing to acknowledge wrongdoing.  These folks often owe serious apologies.  This isn’t what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the myriad apologies we make over the course of our everyday lives, specifically the ones that are unnecessary, undermining, and sometimes a little dehumanizing.

Studies conducted with university students in Canada found that women indeed apologize more than men, on average.  According to this particular research, it’s not because men are reluctant to admit wrong-doing.  It’s because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes such.  They say “sorry” less because they think they’ve done fewer things warranting apology.  In other words, women have a lower bar for assessing when they’ve committed transgressions that warrant apologizing.  We judge our actions more critically, thus feeling and saying “sorry” more. 

Poignantly, my search for “not sorry” graphics on the website Shutterstock returned next to no images of women for me to feature here.  The “most relevant” images center on men, literally shrugging non-apologies.  Most striking is a “Mad Men” era businessman leaned back in his office chair looking unabashedly smug.  Oh for women to be so unapologetic!

This is what some critics of the so-called Sorry Not Sorry “movement” seem to fear – that discouraging women from apologizing curtails their empathy and relatability, even pushing them in the direction of being rude.  Others suggest it tells women that, in order to be successful in business and life, they need to speak and behave more like men.  Linguist Robin Lakoff goes so far as to say “This…is just one more way of telling powerful women to ‘shut up you bitch.’

I hated even including that here; it’s so far from what I’m suggesting we do.  When a woman dropped her pen cap in the direction of her neighbor at the coffee shop where I’m writing, she apologized as she reached for it.  So…I struck up a conversation with her – and we agreed this particular situation hadn’t warranted apology.  The man hadn’t even seen her drop or reach for the cap, and she certainly hadn’t caused him any offense.  A more appropriate acknowledgement here would have been “Excuse me.”  And that’s my suggestion – that we give thought to the reasons we apologize and whether doing so is really necessary…and when it’s not, we skip the “I’m sorry” altogether and replace it with more fitting words for the situation.

There’s got to be a balance between aggressive and deferential – between women acting in stereotypically manly ways to fit in or appease others and our continuing to use words in ways that undermine our own normal, real, authentic, and even assertive presence in the world.  I don’t want women to shut up.  I want them to speak up.  And to stop apologizing for showing up.

3 thoughts on “Excuse Me (But I’m Not Sorry)

  1. Beautufully written, I agree and have been talking about this exact thing in my life. I dated a man that kept telling me to apologize and I didnt have it in me to do it. I looked and him and wondered why I needed to keep apologizing for something he did, I didnt even need an apology, just stop blaming and face yourself. My voice caused all kinds of trouble and earned me a better relationship with my strength and truth.

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  2. Apologies don’t really reside in gender, I don’t think. Men are just as prone to apologize for being alive as anyone else, at least the men who don’t see themselves as above being responsible for hurting others, or just plain being rude to others.
    I am a Canadian male, and many studies show we Canadians are the most apologetic people in the world. We even apologize for being Ametica’s northern neighbours. We apologize for putting “u’s” in words like neighbours or labour. I guess it is possible that Canadian women apologize more than Canadian men, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Most of us do it automatically, because that was the way we were brought up…
    However, I will not apologize for saying I’m sorry too often, because it makes me feel good. Most Canadians feel good when everyone in a situation apologizes to each other.
    So when you say women feel like they apologize because they don’t feel worthy, I hope you are wrong. You probably just know a Canadian…

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