Have you ever found yourself unnecessarily apologising, or noticed it from someone else? In my first few driving lessons, the amount of times I said sorry for my shoddy driving was so ridiculous that my driving instructor told me to stop, because I was learning, and it was fine, and wasn’t driving badly on purpose. I thought that was nice of him, but then I realised that he was right. Why exactly was I apologising, when it was my first time behind the wheel and this was literally his job? And then I started seeing my habit in other parts of my life too.
I said sorry when I swerved to avoid someone walking in my direction on the pavement; I said sorry when I had to ask someone for help with something I had never done before; I said sorry when I corrected someone’s misinformation, or offered my own opinion, or sneezed too loud. Most of the things I apologised for were out of my control, or were not entirely my fault, or weren’t something that was offensive in the slightest.
Once I noticed this, it started to bother me. There’s nothing wrong with apologising, when they were justified; nothing wrong with bearing responsibility and being polite. But politeness should not be prioritised over self-assurance and confidence. Apologies must be given for good reasons, or they lose all meaning. Why was I taking the blame for so many little things throughout the day, when apologies weren’t warranted or even wanted? Apologies in my everyday interactions seemed intrinsic, bubbling up my throat, at the ready.
But I knew I wasn’t the only one. Studies have shown that women not only apologise more than men on average, but also have a lower threshold for what they should be apologising for. As women, we are often made to feel as though we are responsible for everyone and everything, which can result in anxiousness to keep everyone happy, even at our own inconvenience. There are other ways that many women express similar implications of uncertainty. Have you ever found yourself hedging your words, or starting a statement with ‘I might be wrong, but…”, when you knew what you were talking about? Or turning what should be a statement into a question by prefacing it with ‘Would it be okay if…’?
Why do we do this? Maybe it’s the social importance we place on women growing up to be agreeable, polite, and submissive in order to be liked, while we prize assertiveness and confidence in men. Maybe society has made women intrinsically afraid of offending someone, and what the consequences might be for them. Maybe we just let men get away with too much.
Either way, it’s a bad habit. If you’re apologising for the smallest things, if you’re unsure about the words you’re saying, it will undermine your authority, especially in work situations. It also undermines your own self-worth and confidence, which may result in even more apologising. Not to mention, over-apologising for fear of offending someone negates your own boundaries. If you set a boundary with someone, it’s probably for a good reason. Don’t apologise for it! Hold your ground. If you apologise when the real fault lies with someone else, then this will only excuse their behaviour and lead to less responsibility from them. You owe yourself more than that.
Over-apologising can often be a trauma response, a self-preservation attempt when you feel unsafe, or it can be because of low self-esteem. This is only natural, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to try and undo this, to try and make ourselves more comfortable in our own skin, more comfortable taking up space in the world. Maybe this can start with replacing ‘I’m sorry’ with ‘please’, or maybe you can try waiting for someone else to move out of your way on the pavement instead (who will probably be a man, as women tend to naturally move out of the way of anyone in their path). By allowing ourselves a little more assertiveness and demanding consideration from others, we can make a move away from the internalised misogyny which tells us that we’re not entitled to those things.
I try to remind myself that it’s okay to disagree with someone, and it’s good to be proud about the words I speak and the space I inhabit, and to never make myself small for someone else. Habits can only be broken through time and determination; for our daughters, and the next generation of women, who will watch and emulate our confidence and strength, it’s important to try. We should lead by example.
- E. Brean