The word "sorry" is the biggest little word in the world.
Last week, my boyfriend leaned in to kiss my cheekbone, misjudged his angle of approach and my eyelashes poked him straight in the eye. I immediately apologized and he laughed saying, "Why are you saying you're sorry?"
Since then, I have noticed how often I -- and my female friends -- apologize for things that are out of our control. This, of course, is different than saying, "I am sorry for being late," or "I'm sorry I picked a fight last night because I was really hungry and you were taking forever to figure out our plans."
Last year, TIME magazine columnist Jessica Bennett wrote an article called "I'm Sorry, but Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing" and talked about exactly this.
Why do women apologize so much? She argues that sorry is a crutch -- "a tyrannical lady-crutch. It's a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear 'soft' while making a demand," she said.
I say there are three different categories of "I'm sorry."
1. I'm Sorry I Hurt You.
There are times when we are actually sorry or want to apologize for something we did. I'm sorry I hurt you. Without this societal custom, we would all walk around with resentment, sadness and possibly loaded shotguns. Saying I'm sorry when it's necessary is the quickest way to fix hurt feelings.
2. I'm Sorry You're Hurting.
But how about all the times women say sorry for situations that have nothing to do with them? I am sorry you broke your collarbone. I am sorry you got fired. In other words, I am sorry a bad thing has happened to you. This can be circumstantial or emotional. I am sorry your father has cancer.
Saying sorry can be an abbreviation; a shortcut to emotional acknowledgment. It can replace longer sentiments that we either don't have time to get into or aren't always comfortable expressing -- like I'm sorry you're in pain. I'm sorry you're unhappy. I'm sorry things aren't going the way you wish they were right now. I can't fix it.
This is the mother complex. Many women, whether they've produced children yet or not, possess that innate knee-jerk response to comfort others through acknowledgment. To tell whomever is unhappy that his or her feelings are being heard.
Is this instinct more powerful in women than in men? Are women generally more empathetic? Research shows that this may be the case.
In one study, men's emotional lives were not as much linked to the experiences of their partner while the female partner's levels of empathy could be measured as if the event was happening directly to her.
When I told my boyfriend that I was sorry my eyelashes got in the way of his fast-approaching face, I was using sorry as shorthand. The full thought would have been I am sorry that you experienced something that didn't feel good. I wouldn't like it if that happened to me, either. It didn't have anything to do with assuming blame.
Does women's often joked about desire to just be heard ("you don't need to fix the problem, just acknowledge what I'm feeling") in turn make us desire acknowledging others more deeply as well? Do we say sorry more often because of it?
3. I'm Sorry I'm Here.
So often women, like Bennett says, use "sorry" to soften the rest of what we are about to say. I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have a question. I'm sorry to bother you, but (insert anything annoying, questionably critical, demanding, pushy, needy, negative.)
This type of sorry is really the crux of Bennett's article. She calls upon author Rachel Simmons' theory, "Women know they have to be likable to get ahead. Apologizing is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening." Otherwise, we might be labeled a bitch.
Would a man preface a comment in a meeting with the words "I'm sorry"? Would he tell his waiter a mistake was made on the bill, or would he apologize first?
A commonly referenced take-away from Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In is her story of women not taking a seat at the table during a meeting. Preferring not to stand out, many young women at the company sat off to the side and stayed there even when they were invited to join the table.
After the meeting concluded, Sandberg says she pulled the women aside privately and told them that taking seats at the table makes them participants and not spectators.
"It was a watershed moment for me," Sandberg writes. "A moment when I witnessed how an internal barrier can alter women's behavior."
Similarly, every time we apologize for something that isn't our fault -- "I'm sorry, but I ordered coffee and not iced tea" -- we are reducing our power. Intentionally.
Is it because women are so quickly labeled as the nag, the bitch and the princess that we prematurely protect ourselves with the verbal armor, "I'm sorry" or "sorry, but"?
Ask for what you want, but do it nicely.
Sandberg herself encourages women to take great care in the way they ask for raises at work. She says it's important to smile, a lot.
But starting sentences with "I'm sorry" seems like we are apologizing for our very existence -- I'm sorry for inconveniencing you, I'm sorry for pointing out something negative, I'm sorry for asking anything of you. I'm sorry for being here.
What are we apologizing for? The potential for a disagreement? The possibility of disruption?
"Sorry" will never compensate for the messiness of being human.
What it does instead is lessen the strength of our statements. It implies that the words that follow are wishy-washy. It suggests that permission is needed to express our feelings.
Save the sorry-s for the bad days, the broken hearts, the disappointments and the regrets. When used right, it can be the most important word in the world. But when used incorrectly, it makes us appear so much less important than we really are.
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