Why Women Have To Say Sorry To Survive
As a teenager, I took great pride in my schoolyard reputation for being brash and unafraid of authority.
I was my own best propagandist, relishing any opportunity to retell my latest story of rebellion.
There was the time I was asked by my maths teacher to leave the classroom, and instead began trampling my way across the table tops and shouting profanities. Or the time I engaged my Italian teacher in a lengthy argument about the merits of her professional style, only to have her burst into tears. I felt pressure with each new incident to outdo the spectacle of the last.
I became deeply attached to this portrait of myself: one where I was confident and fearless and a little bit crazy. I dwelled on the memories which reinforced this image, and glossed over the ones that didn’t. I told my outrageous stories and did my outrageous things; and right throughout my 20s, this bold and brash portrait formed the basis for my identity.
So I was pretty taken aback when my partner at the time decided to question it.
“You know,” he said after listening to some favourite old story, “I’ve never really seen you act particularly confrontational.”
“Of course you have!” I spluttered, “What about… the time I yelled at that catcaller to go jump off a bridge!”
“I remember. But that was a while ago, and I think most of the time you’re actually pretty polite and apologetic.”
Obviously I was scowling because he went on to insist that “It’s not a bad thing!”
Still, I was convinced that my partner was the one getting it wrong. He would witness the splendour that was kick-ass Katie soon enough.
It took a while for me to accept that he was right.
I tuned into my own chatter and I could hear them. Apologies for asking a question, for repeating myself, for bumping into someone on the street.
Sorrys piled upon sorrys.
The habit for constant apology had been so seamlessly instilled in me that I had barely noticed. My apologising was reflexive; instinctual. I imagine for many women it’s the same. Most of our apologies waft by, unnoticed by us or the person to whom they are directed: a never ending-pitter-patter of submission.
I was forced to mediate my view of kick-ass Katie and enter a problematic relationship with this newer, meeker identity.
But I wanted to be tough again, and I resolved to try: I penned a call-to-arms to my fellow women to do ditch the saccharine politeness. And I wasn’t the only one. Google “Women saying sorry” and you’ll be inundated with think-pieces imploring women to quit over-apologising.
The thesis goes like this: Women have learned over centuries to tiptoe around the feelings of others. But this ancient tendency for obsequiousness has today morphed into an exercise in self-sabotage. Over-apologising makes us appear weak and equivocal, and undermines our authority both at home and ‘in the office’ (that’s where all modern women work). So it’s time to quit saying sorry and start bloody well asserting ourselves!
And, armed with my newfound determination to stem my slide into pallid passivity, I really did try. I eliminated almost all the exclamation marks from my emails. But when it came to making a customer complaint, or levelling with a male editor about a correction I didn’t like, the apologies tumbled forth, uncontainable.
I turned to my friend, psychologist Dr Julie Morsillo, to ask why women find directness so damn difficult.
“Women are the traditional caregivers of the home,” she explained, “and many have grown up in homes where their own mothers modelled passive and non-confrontational behaviour to them.”
On a recent night out, I asked my friends to share some of the reasons why they apologise, and there were a lot.
“It’s become clear to me over the years that one of my jobs is to manage my partner’s emotions,” said one of my besties. “If he’s had a shit day and is grumpy, I find myself apologising for every tiny thing. It’s not because I think I’ve done anything wrong… I guess I’m just trying to make him feel better.”
“If I sense a confrontation brewing,” added another friend, “I’ll do the whole ‘Sorry, let’s just leave it, sorry!’ just to de-escalate. It’s just not worth it most of the time. I’d rather say sorry than get into an argument.”
I also chatted to musician and performance artist Jazmine Rose Phillips. “In my experience,” she told me, “women often apologise for taking up space or wasting time. Working in the music and sound industry, I find myself starting out requests with: ‘I’m so sorry, it’s fine if you can’t, but could you…’ because I don’t want to be labelled ‘difficult’. And this is despite the fact I’ve been in the industry for years and know what I’m talking about.”
Back to Dr Julie: “One of the reasons women find themselves doing all the apologising is that men have been taught to be tough and unfeeling. To them, contrition can be a sign of weakness. They rely on the women in their lives to de-escalate possible confrontations and keep the peace because they don’t possess the emotional tools.”
Turns out, women’s apologies aren’t just some useless throwback to a time when we all wore corsets and curtsied. They serve a vital purpose in maintaining the dynamics of our relationships. So the question I should have probably been asking myself when I penned that 2016 article is: Are we happy with the relationship dynamics that all these apologies are propping up?
Women apologise, or back away from arguments, or drench statements in thick layers of self-deprecation, as a signal of deference. It’s our way of conveying that we are totes cool with the way power is distributed in this particular relationship, and will not be mounting a challenge. That’s why our pantomimes of politeness tend to be reserved for the people who have power over us. And yes, that’s usually men.
So yes, it would be great if women could simply quit all this apologising. But it’s not that simple.
In theory, strong, assertive women are the best. In reality, women are often punished for failing to be suitably subservient. Hillary Clinton has long pointed out that powerful women are forced to tread a “Goldilocks path” between seeming decisive but never angry; assertive but never “hysterical”. And it’s not just famous women who are punished for being unapologetic. Most of us know one or two women who consistently speak directly; maybe they demand a refund rather than requesting it in a little mousey voice; and we know how those women are labelled. Pushy, bitchy, loud.
“When I was working at a rehab,” said Jazmine, “my male manager instructed me to ‘Go check on the youth upstairs.’ Not a request, an order. I responded that I’d just checked on them and didn’t want to wake them by returning so soon. The next day, I got pulled into his office and harangued over my ‘defiant attitude’. The manager was beside himself and said anyone else would have politely agreed to the instruction.”
The truth is that we can’t “just stop apologising”. We apologise to keep our jobs, to maintain our relationships, to not get yelled at; to not get hit. Women don’t apologise because we enjoy it. We do it because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t.
Our apologies are not a choice, they are a method of social survival.
When we chastise one another for being weak, we blame ourselves for a problem not of our making. We put the onus on ourselves to change a situation that is not ours to change.
So let’s stop instructing one another to quit apologising. Let’s instead start questioning the social dynamics that mean we don’t have a choice. Let’s invite the people who’ve become accustomed to our submission, to imagine a world in which they no longer rely upon it.
So what happened to kick-ass Katie? She’s still a part of me; she’s the reason I scream right back at every idiot who yells at me on the street. But I no longer beat myself up that I’ve had to smooth out her rough edges to get by. We women do what we have to do.