“Whoops, sorry,” I say to the stranger who just bumped into me with their cart in the grocery store.
“So sorry to bug you, but…” I write in an email to someone who I actually need to communicate with.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I’ve said to waiters when they’ve brought me the wrong food.
“I’m really sorry, ” I tell my kids when I’m not making breakfast quick enough for their starving faces.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I’ll meekly mumble to the person behind the counter at the gas station who is completely ignoring that I’m alive and needing their help.
And with each sorry, it’s like what I’m really saying is “I’m super sorry for my existence.” It’s like I’m apologizing for not having 12 arms, for making people do their jobs, for being a female, for writing an email, for being the first to stand in the exact space that someone else wanted to stand.
For breathing oxygen.
Why do I do this?
Well, science says that I do it more often because I’m a woman. Fabulous.
One study found that women have a lower threshold for what we find offensive, so we will apologize for normal, everyday situations. Women are also more empathetic, being more likely to put ourselves into someone else’s position. Additionally, we are less likely to just ask for what we need directly. Thus enters the “sorry” — a thing that just encompasses all of those inner submissive, empathetic feelings in one tiny, annoying word.
There was a Pantene commercial a few years ago that highlighted how women say sorry way too often. It showed scenes of women who apologized (making me cringe because it looks so sadly familiar) and then the commercial showed each situation flipped. The women would just freaking say what they needed to say without apologizing for their existence beforehand. And why not? They didn’t seem rude or bitchy. They just seemed like a normal person with a healthy sense of their place in the world. It’s powerful and disconcerting to watch.
A few months ago, my husband and I started to notice that our son was saying sorry for a lot of things that he didn’t need to apologize for: standing in the kitchen chopping apples, his sister’s behavior, or whenever we asked him about something. He said it quickly like a habit, with downcast eyes, as if he wanted to disappear into the floor, and it drove us bonkers.
To combat this, we decided that no one in our family could just unconsciously say sorry. This was going to be family law. If one of us is going to say it, it has to be for a valid reason like being a total jackass, not just because we need a space-filler in our sentence. And then the person receiving the apology acknowledges it, and says, “Thank you.”
This is working for us, mostly because our 5-year-old is a bit of tyrant about the rules. Well, she’s kind of a tyrant about lots of things, but she’s also not an over-apologizer like me and her brother. For us, this makes saying a sorry a real thing — not just something we flippantly say so we can move on with our lives or get what we need. It also makes the apology more valuable because we are reserving it for those times that it is truly warranted.
I’ve been working on my sorry habit out in the world too: physically deleting all of the sorries out of each email, biting my tongue after wanting to automatically apologize when someone else runs into me, just asking the waiter for the correct meal without interjecting my guilt at possibly putting someone out. It’s not easy and it’s not natural for me, but I’m jumping off the sorry train. And I’m hoping to take my kid with me.
Sorry not sorry.