Not too long ago, I was checking my office mailbox for the snail mail that I sometimes receive. My mailbox is located in a common area, along with everyone else's mailbox (a community room consisting of about 40 or so mailboxes altogether).
I reached my mailbox approximately three seconds before a colleague, who wanted to check for her own mail. When I turned around and realized she was also hoping to check her mail at that same moment, rather than say hello, I apologized for being there -- for being the (imaginary) nuisance who was in her way at the exact moment that she needed to do something.
Why am I sharing this story?
Because her response is something I have been thinking about ever since. She looked me square in the face and somewhat sternly said: "Do not ever apologize for your right to exist in a community space."
I do not remember how I responded to her collegial "admonishment," but I'm hoping I did not apologize for apologizing.
Her response forced me to take stock of two things:
- How often I apologize, and
- The circumstances about which I apologize.
After some deep reflection, I've concluded that I apologize for many, many things, and often. Most of the "crimes" for which I apologize are not crimes at all -- they are apologies for simply going about my business in ways that are necessary. Whether it is arriving first to use the microwave a few seconds before someone else was hoping to use it, asking a necessary question of someone who has the answers or carrying out other such tasks and functions that allow me to get through the day successfully, I subconsciously have a canned apology waiting feverishly to be delivered.
It is time to stop this silliness.
When I thought about how often I apologized, I also began thinking about my students. Many of my students -- and especially the young women -- apologize for much the same reasons I catch myself apologizing.
They apologize for existing in spaces and places in which they have every right to exist.
They apologize for doing work they need to do.
They apologize for asking questions to which they need answers.
They apologize for "taking up" my time; time, mind you, that I am employed (and happy) to give them.
I remember one student who even apologized for showing up for a scheduled appointment with me -- on time.
I'm not about to dig into "the research" to pacify some illusion of "credibility" for those who strive, daily, to ignore, dismiss and dispel (I do enough of this digging in my professional life), but I will say, anecdotally, that this need to apologize profusely for daring to function appears to be a women problem.
Many women work very hard to be "polite." They work very hard to minimize their existence in the interest of seeming polite (or perhaps in the interest of some distorted conception of "friendly"), or not making waves, or to assuage some sort of imagined slight that is historically germane to those who dare to Exist as Women in a Space..
Sugar and spice and all that crap.
This post is, therefore, targeting young women who are finding their way, and daring to contribute productively to this world.
I'm going to borrow from the incomparable educator Brené Brown to drive this message home. For Brown, life is "about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen."
Existing in a space is not a privilege -- it is a right. Treat it as such, and have the courage to stop apologizing for it.
To be sure, if you hurt someone (emotionally or otherwise; intentionally or otherwise), do the right thing and apologize (and mean it). Conversely, if your rightful existence in a shared space happens to inconvenience someone, that is not your problem. In fact, their social ineptitude could not be further from your problem.
Find other women (like my colleague) who do not have (or make) the time for nonsense apologies, and learn from them. I'll promise to do the same.
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