I notice it most when I’m traveling for business. Whether it’s navigating airport security, negotiating a crowd of wanderers, ordering food, squeezing into an airplane seat, accessing the overhead bin, or trying to pass a slow walker on the ramp when deboarding, women are constantly apologizing. I hear “sorry” in a female voice at least a hundred times a day.
It’s not just when travelling. Everywhere I go – wherever women are using space or time, or making requests – “sorry” comes out of their mouths constantly. I say “their” because I don’t do it so much. I’m more like the men. I walk with purpose and move decisively. I say “excuse me” when I need to get around someone or reach into their personal space, and I say “so sorry!” when I bump someone hard or step on their toes. Mostly I smile and just go about my business.
Not only do women apologize way more often than men, and in a much greater variety of situations, women tend to say “sorry”, while men employ a broader vocabulary like “excuse me” or “oops”. Test this out for yourself. If you’re a woman, count how many times you say “sorry” in a day. Count how many times other women say “sorry.” Now spend a few days counting how many times men say “sorry” and notice what words they use to negotiate space and time or apologize. Notice what they don’t apologize for, that a woman would.
This apologizing behavior annoys me. Because I often display more archetypically masculine behaviors than women, I find women apologizing even to me. It’s exasperating, and I find myself emphatically reassuring the “offender” – “no, no, you’re fine!” or redirecting her: “oh, no need to apologize!” I’ve often had an urge to grab her by the shoulders and shout “stop saying sorry for everything!”
This isn’t about politeness. Politeness and courtesy lubricate the wheels of social interaction, especially in crowded urban spaces, and as the daughter of a Southern man, it’s something I value and appreciate. This is about inequity and negative impact on women showing up as their full brilliant, excellent selves in the workplace and beyond.
Women’s tendency to constantly say “sorry” is problematic for three reasons. First, it’s a power-under behavior. It’s overly and unnecessarily deferential. It communicates “I don’t have a right to occupy this space, or use this time, or make a request of you. My needs are less important than yours. My body is a nuisance. You are more powerful and deserving than me.” If you doubt this, ask yourself – would the Queen of England be saying “sorry” for speaking her mind in a meeting? Would Michelle Obama say “sorry” and constantly step aside for others when walking through a busy, crowded space? Would Oprah say “sorry” for requesting extra sauce or reaching for the salt shaker? Of course not, because these women own their power and command their space. The rest of us are no different and deserve no less.
Second, it’s what I call an auto-microaggression. It’s an extension of Derald Wing Sue’s classic definition of a microaggression as a “brief, everyday exchange that sends denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership” to include the ways we may express microaggressions to ourselves. Women constantly saying “sorry” for every little thing reinforces our own misguided and ineffective belief that this is our role – to always defer, submit, step aside, and be as small and invisible as possible. It also reinforces this belief in others, since then they become accustomed to this dynamic and never have to say “sorry” to us.
Third, constantly using any word dilutes its real power and meaning. When women say “sorry” repeatedly, and in circumstances when a milder or more appropriate word would suffice, saying “sorry” no longer matters when it should, nor has the same impact. As we own our power, we can step into new levels of integrity and responsibility for making sure our words matter and that they’re taken seriously – first, by us.
What to do? If you’re a woman, avoid saying “sorry” for a week, unless it really matters. Notice the impact on how others respond to you, and how you feel, speak, and respond. If you’re a man, instead of reinforcing women’s deferential behaviors by accepting the apology with a “no problem” or “you’re fine”, play with curiosity. Ask: “what caused you to apologize just then?” or “what are you apologizing for?” or say: “No apology needed in this situation.” Go deeper if you have a trusting relationship. Notice any shifts in yourself or them.
Equity supports brilliance, excellence and authenticity – in everyone. Women, there’s no need to constantly put yourself in an inferior position. There’s no need to apologize so much because, really, “you’re fine” – just the way you are.