After about 20 minutes of unceasing pestering — the kind 9-year-old little sisters possess an innate talent for — my then-18-year-old brother finally agreed to go for a bike ride with me on some trails near our house. Throughout the ride, I fumbled about on the narrow dirt trails, bumping into my brother’s bike, alternating between falling too far behind and pedaling too far ahead. I was at a very talkative point in my childhood, and with every bump or wrong turn of my handlebars, I merely apologized and continued gabbing.
Though I was very talkative, my brother had become aware of another pattern of behavior I’d recently picked up. He suddenly braked in the middle of the trail, turned his bike around to look at me and, with a perturbed tone in his voice, asked me why I kept saying “sorry” so often. Apparently, I’d been doing that awhile, and even when I wasn’t causing collisions, I had begun almost every sentence since we’d left the house that afternoon with the word “sorry.” I didn’t know how to respond, nor did I have an explanation for the frequency of my apologies, so I replied with what was probably the last thing my brother wanted to hear — yet another apology. He shook his head and, in a true brotherly fashion, curtly told me I should stop because I was being annoying. As he began to slowly pedal onward, he amended that statement by adding the warning that people may not take me seriously if I was always apologizing.
The memory of that conversation with my brother still resurfaces from time to time, especially when my apologies seem too numerous and unnecessary. In fact, that conversation was in the back of my mind during Winter Break when I had the opportunity to catch up with a mentor and some colleagues from a project I worked on a couple of years ago. As our mentor gave us all advice about our individual work and our creative pursuits, she stressed the importance of language — how our words carry a specific magnitude into the world. But one of the most influential pieces of advice I took away from meeting with her was that what we communicate about ourselves through our words and our actions is one way we can decide how we’ll be perceived.
After she said that, I sat there recalling moments when I didn’t display confidence in myself or in the work I was producing. While I took my older brother’s advice all those years ago, I still catch myself apologizing in situations where an apology is unnecessary and second-guessing myself in discussions. I thought of all the times I asked questions by first saying, “So, this is a stupid question but … ” I remembered moments when I would apologize for asking a question or saying something I didn’t think furthered the conversation.
But in these thoughts, I know I’m not alone.
Women, researchers and journalists alike, noticed this general and gendered pattern of over-apologizing years ago. In fact, a 2010 study found that women apologize more often than men on a consistent basis, and that this is because women are often more likely to perceive themselves committing social offences or transgressions. As a result, we apologize, offering up acquiescence in a society where women are continually expected to be polite, to be unobtrusive, to be perpetually pleasant and to be unaggressive.
Since then, there has been a slew of commentary in the media — from articles to comedy sketches — describing this societal pressure, which also plays a role in the frequency of women apologizing. According to linguist Robin Lakoff, “sorry” is a method women can use to obtain some of the power usually denied to them while still conforming to contemporary norms. Lakoff states that apologizing “lets people — especially women — get away with saying what the other person doesn’t want to hear.” At the same, another linguist, Deborah Tannen suggests that the act of apologizing is often viewed negatively as a form of dismissal or defeat.
Awareness of this trend and its capability to make women appear less competent and confident has even prompted the creation of a Chrome app called Just Not Sorry. This app highlights particular phrases in an e-mail that could come as across as language that would dismiss or undermine the professional abilities of the writer. The app’s creators at Cyrus Innovation, a consulting firm specializing in women-led companies and tech teams, created the app to alert women about the subconscious word choices they may regularly use to avoid seeming too demanding.
As I wrote through a draft of this column, I realized there is already so much information on this topic. Oddly enough, I began to wonder if I should apologize for bringing up a subject people have discussed for years. This goes to show that after so much discussion, women still feel compelled to say “sorry” for things that don’t require an apology, and many women may still feel anxiety about appearing too aggressive. When gender norms are so ingrained in our society, they can persist for a long time and contribute to trends of inequality. To counter this, we need to continue to facilitate awareness and discuss the causes of such trends. Whether it’s through apps, journalism, art or educating a variety of groups, this is clearly a conversation worth continuing.
Each time “sorry” is the initial phrase in a sentence, it usually masks a far more important statement such as “I have an idea,” “I have a point to contribute” or “I have a question.” These words introduce sentences that people need to hear and respect, regardless of gender or any other identity trait. “Sorry” may have a proper place in our general etiquette. However, no individual should ever feel so restricted by norms that they apologize for questioning the world around them, for having confidence or for wanting to express their ideas.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.