My oldest daughter Sophie is not even 3, and she is awesome. She’s unapologetic about the space she takes up, any inconvenience she may cause, or if she passes gas in public. No. Big. Deal. She gets it.
But something really disturbing happened the other day, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The words just dropped out of her mouth, and my jaw hit the floor. As a clumsy feminist just getting my footing, I immediately thought “What have I done wrong?”
A moment later she ran over to her 11-month-old sister, nonchalantly smacked her in the face, then proceeded to skip-hop-twirl over to the fridge, “Mommy, can I have a yogurt drink?” blissfully unaware. I realized that her “I’m sorry” was more of a vocal tick, like when she heard me tell my husband on the phone that I had diarrhea and then proceeded to sing down the aisles of the grocery store, “Diarrhea, diarrhea, you have diarrhea!”
I think that is what gives me fear — the thought that I have modeled for her the culture that leads women to apologize for everything, always. The words “I’m sorry” spoken as a default; a socially acceptable female version of “Um” or “Ah.”
It’s not uncommon to find women inserting them into conversations, presentations, contributions in staff meetings, and general social interactions as though they are apologizing for their existence. I know I do this, and when I catch myself I make an effort to engage in more positive self-talk: “You have nothing to be sorry for, own your space!”
Comedian Amy Schumer highlighted this uniquely female phenomenon in a hilarious sketch featuring fictional high-achieving women on a panel of experts hilariously caught in a cycle of “I’m sorry,” as they are asked questions about their prestigious fields of work. It’s a fantastic commentary on what internalized sexism looks like in our culture.
But what does it mean that women apologize at significantly higher rates than men? There are a number of scientifically-supported findings that indicate that women perceive themselves as committing more acts of offense or wrongdoing as compared to men (they think they should be apologizing).
But let’s do some reality checking:
Are women more poorly behaved than men in this culture?
Do they commit more offensive acts?
At the criminal level, it’s clear they do not — the ratio of incarcerated men to women is approximately 10:1. What about in more nuanced situations at the social level? Much research has attributed more altruistic and compassionate qualities to women as opposed to men. These studies signal a higher level of concern for the other in women, again indicating that women are more attuned to offending others or wrongdoing than men are, and in response they often elevate the well-being of the other over their own wellbeing.
So saying “I’m sorry” as a stop-gap, during a silence, as a way to segue into a new topic, or while presenting a brilliant idea is likely a result of a culture that encourages women to define their world by things that are external, how they impact others, and what their appropriate roles are.
The truth is, my oldest daughter was not sorry, she was parroting a behavior that she picked up from an adult — that adult quite possibly being me. Thank goodness it isn’t internalized yet, but this means I need to do better.
I think we all need to do better, for ourselves, our daughters, our friends, our mothers, and colleagues. We need to own the space we take up, praise each other, build ourselves up, combat thoughts and social constructions that shape the environment to tell women they exist to assist others and take up as little bodily, mental, and social space as possible.
What does this look like practically? That day in the store, should I have stood on a box of size 5 diapers, cleared my throat and confidently projected, “Yes, yes everyone, I do have diarrhea, I am a person. It happens to all of us, get over it!” Maybe, maybe not. But I wonder what it would be like if I took one day and intentionally tagged “not sorry” onto every time I said “sorry.”
Women engaging in acts that defy social norms have always caused social dissonance in our culture. What if I not only stopped apologized for just being, but also intentionally created a little dissonance, perhaps as a way of slapping someone in the face and then dancing over to the fridge for a beer, Diet Coke, or yogurt drink.
OK, physical violence aside, what if I followed my heart and didn’t apologize? I think I could do wonderful things. I think Sophie would stay just as powerful and confident as she is right now.