Do you find yourself often apologizing, as a matter of course? Is “sorry” a word you deploy throughout the day, throughout your life? Is it how you often begin or end your sentences? Is it how you open or close interactions with strangers? Is it the platform from which you move through the world? Well, I’m sorry, but it’s time to stop using apology as your method of social conveyance. See what I did there?
Seriously, though, we’re in an apology epidemic. I noticed I was using apology to get through the day at work. Because I’m in a role that serves the whole staff, I interact with everyone, the full range of our organization’s personalities, every day. Hey, I’m an extrovert, so it’s mostly OK. Naturally there are folks with whom I don’t have much in common or don’t know well. And as you can imagine, there are difficult people, because it’s a group of people working together, and that’s the way it goes.
I found myself tiptoeing up to office doors and cubicles, flattening myself against door frames, allowing only the top of my face to enter my colleagues’ work spaces. Softly I would tap on the wall or door to get their attention. As soon as they looked up or over, my first words, delivered with an over-wrought show of chagrin at the interruption, were: I’m sorry. Followed by whatever I needed to tell them, or the answer to something they requested.
I did not notice this was my practice until recently. My god, when did I start working so hard to take up so little space, begging pardon for that which I inhabited? Ugh. This mode of being is completely at odds with my self-image. I’m bombastic, silly, talkative, fearless, and full of outrageous impulses. Exactly when and how did I become this slinking human mea culpa?
I’ll go ahead and own part of it. I fear disapproval. I suffer from shame attacks, which flare from the minimal and mundane. I’m a Nordstrom girl; to deliver deferential, white-glove service is ingrained. I grew up this way. A wildly energetic, constant-attention seeking child, I drove my PhD candidate mom to distraction about 1,000 times an afternoon while she was grinding away on her dissertation. Her concentration a precious and ephemeral commodity, we agreed on a standard operating procedure for afterschool hours. If I needed something I would open the door to the staircase leading up to her home office, and say her name from the bottom step. I would then ascend the stairs, but was required to count to thirty before entering the room. Her focus was preserved, and my impulses were managed.
Some of the shrinking, self-reproachful behavior comes from the culture, though. As women, we understand from our early experiences we’re not to take up too much room, or talk too much, or too forthrightly. We’re to keep to the margins, speak when spoken to, get out of the way, keep our ideas to ourselves. If we move with confidence, we’re arrogant. Sorry. If we speak with rigorous honesty, we’re bitches or negative nancies. Sorry. If we assert our ideas, we’re domineering. Sorry. If we share a train of thought, we’re chatty cathies. Sorry. And because we’re to be all things to all people, we can’t afford to alienate anyone. Sorry.
Look, I appreciate great manners immensely, and a deferential attitude is a lovely form of courtesy. A personal motto of mine is manners look great on everyone, in every situation. I was raised by a Southern mother, after all. But all this contrition is taking manners to the extreme, at the risk of self-erasure.
A brazen, self-assured-to-the-point-of-autocracy colleague and I got into a tough spot. I was running a pilot culture-building program at our organization and during a competitive activity, she got nasty and dropped an f-bomb on the entire staff. The fun, frenzied energy that built during the session drained right out of the room, effectively ended the game, and everyone dragged back to their desks. Whispering and bad vibes rippled across the organization for the rest of the day.
Furious, I intended to speak to her directly at once. When I got my chance I was shaking in my boots. I refuse to talk to others about a person’s behavior before I’ve addressed them first, but that doesn’t make it easy in the moment. I started by telling her how scared I was of her, realizing it was at the threshold to her office I shrank myself down the most, tapped the softest, tiptoed on eggshells, penitent. It was time to deal with it, together. My worst fear–her disapproval–had happened, and it was public. No where to go but up.
Her face fell when I told her I was afraid of her. She went from sneering to soft in an instant. My voice shaking, I explained to her the impact her outburst had on me, and how it uncovered a deeper issue, my overall fear of her. She listened quietly, and to my great surprise the word “sorry” began to well up out of her, and she must have said it a dozen times, a dozen ways. It was a surprise, and it meant a lot. We reached a new level of understanding.
A week later she and I were at the mall, choosing a gift for a former intern of ours who we were meeting for lunch, to celebrate her college graduation. Walking out of a store through a wide aisle, a young woman flattened herself against a display, apologizing to us for being in the way, though there was plenty of room for three people to pass each other. See, I hate that, my colleague began once we were out of earshot. Women feel like they have to apologize for every little thing, and it’s not right. It’s stupid. There was more than enough space for all of us back there. I was thinking the exact same thing, and we spent the next while talking about the root causes of the apology epidemic.
We vowed to watch ourselves, to eradicate the use of sorry in everyday interaction, to encourage other women to do the same, and to only apologize when we truly wronged someone.
A few weeks later, our office closed at noon before a holiday weekend. Late in the afternoon, another colleague unknowingly set off the building’s alarm, summoning the alarm company to call my brazen colleague’s cell phone. The joys of living closest to work and being on the management team! On vacation in Napa, she emailed the staff, asking someone to go down and shut it off. Crickets. Being the operations manager, that’s my job, so I emailed back I’d take care of it and hopped in the car.
I’m so sorry, she emailed me. I would do it, but I’m away. Smiling, I fired back, I thought we weren’t apologizing anymore. And we aren’t.