A few years ago, I was working with a male colleague – a generally well-respected colleague, someone deemed a “nice guy” – who struggled with receiving feedback during a brainstorming session. His tone was rude and dismissive. I apologized. He did not. Another time when I corrected some misstatements from a different male colleague, he lashed out in a hostile and publicly humiliating way. Again, I apologized. He did not.
We can debate whether or not I even needed to apologize, but that’s irrelevant. Because the problem wasn’t that I apologized; the real problem was that my male colleagues did not.
There is no shortage of professional advice for women – most of which is bullshit. At the top of that list: all that nonsense telling us to quit apologizing.
“Women are constantly told to change their vocabulary — to make it less apologetic and more assertive,” Cindy Gallop and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in Harvard Business Review. The list of don’ts is long: Don’t use the word “just.” Don’t ask for permission. Don’t second-guess yourself. And whatever you do, DON’T apologize.
This trend has been gathering steam for the past few years. And I’ll admit, at first, there seemed to be some merit. Why was I saying “sorry” that I didn’t receive an email? Why was I apologizing for having a conflict with a meeting? Did I really need to say “I’m sorry” if a colleague didn’t understand the context of a conversation because they hadn’t read a previous email? No, I didn’t. But still the advice – nearly always given to women – didn’t ring true for me. What’s so wrong with a few polite, albeit unnecessary, “I’m sorry”s? Were a few hollow-but-socially-customary apologies really keeping me from reaching my full potential? Hardly.
When Rachel Hollis – yeah, that Rachel Hollis, the same one who refuses to apologize for anything – published her book “Girl, Stop Apologizing,” the trend became crystal clear to me. This isn’t about helping women; it’s about censoring us.
Sure, those “I’m sorry”s might be unnecessary, but they can also make the world nicer, calmer, more respectful for everyone. Not only should we keep saying them, maybe we should encourage more.
“The world would be a much better place, and the workplace a great deal happier, if instead of telling women to say sorry less, we told men to say sorry a whole lot more,” Gallop and Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in Harvard Business Review. “The truth is, we need to worry less about editing women, and more about editing incompetent and inappropriate men.”
Apologies – even unnecessary ones – are helpful. They can diffuse tense situations. They disarm defensiveness. They show humility. Dr. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, told the New York Times that apologizing is a natural part of our language.
“Asking people to stop apologizing is like asking them to stop saying hello and goodbye. Those kinds of automatic courtesies are what make it possible to live together,” Dr. Tannen said.
Like Harvard Business Review, Dr. Tannen said the question isn’t whether women are over-apologizing, but whether men are under-apologizing.
“Most of the problems organizations and nations have (e.g., corruption, bullying, harassment, and toxic or destructive leadership) are the direct result of our failures to restrain or inhibit powerful men, yet we are perpetually worried about censoring women,” Gallop and Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in Harvard Business Review.
When the #stopapologizing trend kicked up a few years ago, I’ll admit that I started policing my own behavior. I censored myself and deleted all those superfluous “I’m sorry, but…”s from my emails. I resisted apologizing for miscommunications when I knew that I wasn’t the cause of it. And you know what happened?
Nothing. Well, nothing positive anyway. I wasn’t viewed as more assertive or confident to colleagues. Men didn’t start taking responsibility for their own shortcomings. I didn’t magically get promoted to leadership positions or earn more respect. I did, however, feel worse about myself. I grew exhausted with second-guessing my own words. I felt unnatural and kinda bad about myself.
Let me be very clear: I am not saying that women who are assertive or naturally avoid all those gratuitous apologies are wrong or that people should feel the need to apologize unnecessarily. Not. At. All.
What I am saying is that women who apologize more often than necessary are not the problem. Men who don’t apologize enough are.
There is a general trend to censor women and call it “empowerment.” Well, I call bullshit. True empowerment means women are comfortable to be themselves. That women are respected even if they apologize or defer to their colleagues. That women don’t need to second-guess themselves in everything they say or do. That women are respected. Period.
Let’s stop with the toxic advice.
As written in Harvard Business Review, “A better piece of advice for women? Speak freely and speak in any way that you like.”
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