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“I’m sorry,” I said to the Lyft passenger in my back seat.
We’d just driven over some potholes, and the car had jostled up and down, somewhat jarringly.
“Don’t apologize,” she replied. “You didn’t put them there.”
Just a few days before that, after a different female passenger had opened my back door and asked, “Are you my Uber driver?” a reflexive “No, sorry” response spilled from my mouth.
I’m not alone in my tendency to over-apologize. I’ve seen many other women do the same. Once, I heard a friend apologize to two guys for spilling water on them (water!)—even though the reason she had was because some dude had slammed into her from behind, forcing the cup out of her hand.
In her memoir, Drew Barrymore writes, “I was trying to get the attention of the bartender when the man in front of me—whose shoulders I could not see past, though I was hovering anyway—turned around, and I immediately started to apologize for being in his space.”
Throughout my own life I’ve apologized to purses, trash bags, GPS, and a number of other inanimate objects—sometimes in words, other times in a physical gesture that communicates the “sorry” (for example, after slamming the door, I’d occasionally give it a contritious pat).
“Are you apologizing to me or the coffee?” the woman in front of me in line at the supermarket once asked when I said sorry after the bag of coffee fell from my basket onto the checkout line conveyor belt.
Though I’ve met men who take accountability for things that aren’t their fault, I do think in general, it’s much more custom for women to do this.
“Women, more than men, feel apologetic about sharing their ideas, or their space, or…everything, actually. […] Women apologize when they’re not in the wrong,” wrote Ruchika Tulshyan in an article for Forbes.
I think some of these apologies derive from peace-keeping reflexes (instilled by the larger society).
We’ve been conditioned to feel responsible for others’ pain and discomfort—even when we’re not the cause of it. What we sometimes don’t see though is how, over time and perhaps imperceptibly, this tendency comes at the expense of our own completely deserved and basic rights as individuals.
These reflexive apologies function to hold us back and diminish us, as we accept blame or responsibility for things that were not our fault—while the other person rides free, without having had to examine their contribution.
That said, here are my ideas for some things to keep in mind when apologizing:
1. Apologize when you’ve truly done something wrong or that you regret.
“Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost every work email I write. One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing. But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And, certainly, there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing,” wrote Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
2. You can empathize with another person, without necessarily prescribing blame to yourself.
I think an apology is also healthy when empathy drives it. Voicing concern for what another person is feeling—whether we’re at fault or not—is a compassionate gesture. It doesn’t mean you’re taking responsibility for whatever caused them to feel that way.
A passage from the novel Americanah highlights how over-apologizing is not as common in the United States:
“When you tripped and fell, when you choked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say, ‘Sorry.’ They said, ‘Are you okay?’ when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said ‘sorry’ to them when they choked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, ‘Oh, it’s not your fault.'”
For example, when I apologized to the girl in my back seat because the car was shaking after we went over those speed bumps, I know I didn’t conjure those road obstructions into existence, yet I did feel her potential discomfort as a result of them.
3. Specify what you’re sorry for rather than assuming full culpability for the situation.
Otherwise, the sorry will implicitly take on the weight of the latter.
An example of this in my case would be when I’m picking up passengers and saying “I’m sorry you guys had to wait out in the cold” rather than simply saying “I’m sorry.”
4. Aim for mindfulness over-policing yourself.
To end on this note, Allison Fallon writes, “I’m not going to apologize for apologizing too much, but I am going to begin paying attention to how often I apologize, acquiesce, move over, stand down, and just generally accept the short end of the stick.”
Years ago, I held the simplistic belief that women simply needed to apologize less.
Stop apologizing for taking up space.
Stop apologizing for saying what you really think and feel.
Stop apologizing for failing to adhere to “nice.”
Embrace your truest thoughts and feelings. Take pride in your voice, cultivate, and use it—unapologetically. Your opinions are valid. Your space in this world is valid. Your existence is valid (I wrote in an earlier essay).
In time, my beliefs have shifted, as I now recognize that addressing symptoms rather than root causes rarely solves anything.
The root cause here: collective expectations of women to over-perform emotionally in marriage, at work, and in relationships.
That said, the onus belongs to society more than individual women. When we reduce, eliminate, or redistribute those expectations more evenly between men and women, we’ll see apologies tumbling from women’s mouths with lesser frequency.
A collective shift in mindset is also necessary so that we can be prepared and receptive to a woman when she has consciously chosen not to assume responsibility for another person’s emotions. We must challenge the reflexive judgments that pass through our minds—“b*tch,” “bossy,” “mean,” or “rude”—when met with such refusal.
In short, apologize when it’s necessary. Save the apologies for the moments you’ve truly hurt someone or acted thoughtlessly. Save them for when someone is suffering and you feel empathy for them. Voice them after a thoughtful period of introspection, not as a bashful reflex.