Acknowledging the instinct.
We all have those moments where an unmerited “sorry” slips. Maybe it happens when someone accidentally bumps into us on the street or when we interrupt a lecture to ask for clarification. We know that taking up space and wanting to understand are two things no one should ever apologize for. So where does this instinct come from?
It comes from feeling like we should be small. We should be polite, courteous, and quiet. Young girls are taught to be so careful in social settings that any time they step out of the confines of “quiet,” they feel the need to apologize.
This is a learned tendency.
One moment from my childhood has stuck with me in particular. My little brother and I are in a hotel arcade and we decide to race each other on the set of motorcycles. We each hop on our own vehicle and swipe our game card. Before the race begins, I feel my mom’s hand on my shoulder and her whispers in my ear, “Ladies don’t ride motorcycles. Play something else.” Needless to say, I lost the race. I don’t remember being upset about this loss, but I remember feeling guilty. I remember feeling dirty. In that moment, I wanted to shrink; I didn’t want to be seen as unladylike. The next day, we are building sandcastles on the beach. My dad and I have built a massive fortress, complete with a mote and two-foot towers in each corner. I am proud of this castle. But kids love knocking down sandcastles as much as they love building them, and I am no exception. I tell my parents about this desire and they encourage me not to—“its too pretty to not let others enjoy it.” I find this to be a convincing argument as I like the idea of beachgoers marveling at my creation. So, I leave it behind. As soon as we get to the boardwalk I look back to see two teenage boys laughing as they stomp through my masterpiece, pushing each other down into the towers I had just constructed. My mom can tell I’m disappointed. She tells me that it’s ok, “Let the boys be destructive.”
It’s ok for boys to be destructive. That’s what I learned that day.
Young girls are given dolls to dress and groom, toy babies to care for, and dollhouses to keep in order. Their play teaches them to be self-aware. Is their doll runway ready? Have they fed their baby yet? Is the family in the dollhouse happy? This self-awareness eventually becomes habitual, and this self-awareness can lead these young women who have been taught to present themselves as tiny to instinctively turn to an apology whenever they are anything but.
Habits can be broken. And instinctive apologies are no exception.
It starts with acknowledging when and where these “sorrys” slip. We challenged the F-Word staff to go a day without any unnecessary apologies. What we learned was that it was more difficult to unlearn this conditioned response than expected. We learned how truly automatic these reactions are and how quick we are to let one slip without even noticing. The challenge evolved into a study, taking note on my phone each time the five-letter word snuck its way out.
Some of our apology noticings:
- In my freshmen seminar when I find a flaw in my classmate’s argument. I challenge his proposition, but I feel the need to preface it with a, “I’m sorry, but…”
- When my card chip fails at CVS, I apologize to the employee behind the counter.
- When I am in the the elevator in Van Pelt and it opens on the first floor. A crowd of students wait to enter but I have to squeeze my way out first, whispering a handful apologies as I snake my way out.
- When I drop my pen and my classmate picks it up for me during a lecture, I apologize as she hands it back to me.
- When they gave my friend whole milk after she asked for almond milk at Starbucks, she apologizes when she asks them to fix her order.
- In class, a girl has a cough attack and leaves the room as to not interrupt the lecture. When she returns, she apologizes to the professor.
Noticing whenever we use sorry as a reflex is powerful in and of itself. Habits are not impossible to break, but unlearning an instinct is a difficult process and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we fail to make the change as quickly as we would like to. Acknowledging when and where our apologies are not merited is progress and a necessary first step to a more permanent lifestyle change.
At the end of the day, I looked back at the bullet points I had jotted down and considered ways we could have voiced our concerns, requests, and opinions without an apology.
This is what I came up with (unedited, straight from my phone):
- When challenging an argument, I’m simply challenging an argument! You’re mistaken! Why am I sorry you’re mistaken?!?
- I can’t control the chip reader. A “thank you for your patience” seems like it could be in order. But I can’t apologize on behalf of technology.
- I didn’t have to say anything as I was coming out of the elevator. I could have simply walked out of the elevator.
- When my classmate picked up my pen I could have just said “thank you.” I know she really wasn’t that inconvenienced.
- She’s lactose intolerant! She can’t have whole milk! She isn’t sorry about this!
- You can’t help coughing … there is no need to apologize!
I would recommend this practice to anyone trying to take control of their habitual apologies. It’s a learned tendency that takes a conscious effort to combat, but through acknowledgement and reflection, we can limit our use of the word. Sometimes, it won’t be possible to stop the reflexive “sorry” before it comes out. But, if we can think through these moments after they happen, we might be better equipped to respond alternatively in the future. You can unlearn something the same way you learn it: with practice.
There’s power in our efforts to eliminate the use of this phrase.
“I’m sorry,” is essentially an admission to guilt. When we refuse to apologize for the thoughts and actions we aren’t truly sorry about, we are refusing to feel guilty for having these thoughts and engaging in these actions. We are refusing to feel guilty for being ourselves. We are refusing to feel guilty for taking up space.
Illustration: Sophie Lee