Women: Stop Apologizing
Written by Alissa McShane
Frequently in situations, professional and otherwise, I hear a friend, colleague or stranger say the word “sorry,” and I find myself wanting to freeze time, run to her, delicately grab her by her shoulders and ask her to tell me what she really meant to say. Years of being around women who apologize for their every move—and years of working around mostly men, who only apologize when they have wronged one another—led me to this reaction. The act of the auto-apology is something that has been instilled in all of us since we were too young to understand the impact our formative influences had on us, back to the days when mom and dad would grab our wrists and demand we say sorry to the woman in the grocery store for accidentally bumping into her cart with ours. These are certainly noble efforts when raising children, but due to societal strongholds on the damsel in distress and macho-man archetypes, we ladies have carried this action into adulthood more so than our male counterparts.
Saying “sorry” is a modern reflex, a word spouted to immediately inoculate oneself from potential conflict by taking on blame; often the apologizer is unaware he or she is uttering the phrase. This reactionary accommodation strategy is not bad for the world in the sense that it hurts others, but it is bad in the sense that it devalues your real and necessary apologies and makes you look weak. The the latter consequence is a problem in professional settings, where it can prevent you from being taken seriously—even when you may be the most knowledgeable person in the room.
Sometimes when we apologize, we really mean something else; something that doesn’t necessarily spring to mind as easily as “I’m sorry” does. Here are four examples of what you might really mean when you say sorry. Next time you feel the s-word springing to your tongue, consider whether one of the following phrases is better suited:
1. "Thank you for your patience."
If you, a generally timely and reliable individual, are a minute and thirty seconds late to a meeting with your colleague about next month’s budget because the Keurig was jammed, you do not have to apologize. That being said, if you want him or her to continue to respect you and believe in your timely nature, you should (1) try not to be late often, (2) acknowledge that their time is important and (3) say the words, “thank you for your patience.”
2. "Thank you for understanding."
If you, a generally considerate and helpful individual, are asked by your colleague to attend a function across town with her, and you can’t attend because your daughter has a dance recital at the same time, you do not have to apologize. That being said, if you generally enjoy attending functions with your colleague, and you want her to keep asking you to attend functions in the future, you should (1) show appreciation for her invitation and (2) say the words, “thank you for understanding.”
3. "Excuse me."
It wasn’t your intent to graze the back of their arm with the back of your arm when you walked past them; this is a narrow passageway and you don’t want to fall onto the subway tracks. While “sorry may” come to mind, “excuse me” will do.
4. Nothing at all.
If you, a human with emotions, feels sad, or weak or maybe even sheds a tear when someone breaks up with you, or yells at you, or backs into your new car without leaving a note—you do not have to apologize for feeling your feelings. They need no qualification.
The general subconscious misconception women have is that if we stop apologizing we will sound like careless monsters. That’s simply not the case. You don’t notice it when a woman has risen above apologizing for things she did not do, or things she has no control over; you probably just see that woman as strong and bold, able to command a room and communicate effectively. She probably does not hunch her shoulders or lower the volume of her voice near the end of her sentences. It doesn’t mean she’s lacking in empathy or neglects to take responsibility for her wrongful actions. Instead, she takes responsibility when the action is actually hers and actually wrongful.
Next time you catch a friend apologizing when she doesn’t need to, tell her to stop and offer her an alternative turn of phrase. It stems from something that has been instilled in all of us from a very young age, but it’s never too late to begin the necessary unravelling of those insecurities and the subsequent rebuilding of each others’ confidence.
Alissa is a Florida State University alumni and MBA Student working as an Operations Analyst in Tallahassee, FL. A spirited young professional and natural-born leader, she is passionate about women feeling empowered to work in any field or profession they choose.