Last week, in a salon and under a hot, blasting dryer, halfway through the draconian process that strips my hair of its darkness to reveal a shiny, Pantene blonde, I reached for a magazine.
“Sorry,” I said to the woman next to me, when my fingers accidentally grazed her towel-draped shoulder.
“Sorry,” she quickly echoed my apology, leaning gratuitously out of my way. I laughed self-consciously. These days it seems we’re supposed to feel sorry about saying sorry.
The verdict is indeed in: It appears that some of us — pointedly, women — are saying the word “too much.” The articles and the pretty female-empowerment ads argue that “sorry” is tantamount to supplication and to admitting our worthlessness — that it undermines our power and denies our self-possession, or that it betrays our gender and progress.
But my salon “sorry” did not diminish my sense of worth, or stem from a blithering lack of self-confidence. It was simply meant to acknowledge that the space was limited, and that I could imagine my neighbor’s discomfort in my making it, for a moment, tinier still. My neighbor’s “sorry,” even further from an apology, was a small kindness nonetheless — a verbal token to let me know that she did not blame me for limitations beyond my control, but shared in their burden with me. It was not, in short, a finger-pointing damnation, but a benign commiseration.
Sure, we would have survived without the exchange. It was a fleeting near-nothing. But it lightened that unpleasant space, and our moods. Why should we feel sorry for that?
The confusion seems to be, at root, definitional. In Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen’s book “Talking from 9 to 5: Men and Women at Work,” she argues that “for many women, and a fair number of men, saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t literally an apology; it is a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation.”
I’ve seen this disparity at work: In a rush, rounding a corner, I narrowly missed running into an equally harried male colleague – and he into me. “Sorry,” I offered.
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault,” he chastised. “But it’s OK.” My empathic intention had been commandeered.
Tannen describes this kind of situation as a conversational imbalance: I used “sorry” to mean “I’m sorry this happened,” to express regret without taking or assigning blame. My colleague took my “sorry” as an admission of wrongdoing, and worse.
The problem, then, is no one’s, or, more precisely, everyone’s. The question, therefore, should not be, “Why do women apologize too much?” but “Why do men and women use ‘sorry’ differently?” It could be neurologic difference, or socialized pressure, or enculturated American individualism, or most likely all that and more, combined and twisted. But it is striking that before we understand the answers, we are only asking American women to apologize less, and not American men to apologize more.
There is precedent for this kind of gendered verbal censure. Specifically, people who regularly use so-called “discourse markers” such as “like,” “you know” and “I mean” to fill pauses are, according to recent research, mostly young women — who for decades have been stereotyped as facile and silly, and told to alter their language.
This new study suggests, however, that those who use discourse markers more often are in fact more conscientious and potentially more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings than others — and that they use the phrases to imply a desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.
Could the real issue, then, be that “sorry” doesn’t create weakness but instead reveals a weakness that the most empathetic among us are incorrectly assumed to possess?
Recently, on a train, a stately man knocked an empty seat with his suited elbow. “Sorry,” he said, head turned to the unoccupied seat. “So sorry,” he repeated, twisting back to me, his fingers splayed, palm forward, emphasizing his point before moving on his way, shoulders back, head high. He didn’t lose his purpose. He had simply expressed, through that lilliputian word, that he had seen a fellow human, and cared.
I will never see weakness in that kind of simple goodwill. The reality is this: On this shared-use Earth, our bodies and needs inevitably intersect and collide — a packed and just-closing elevator, a wet umbrella on a crowded bus, a harried office with competing demands. In this, we have a choice: To see ourselves at the inevitable, self-righteous center, or to understand ourselves as an essential, but singular, part of an imperfect whole. Is it really so weak, so un-American, so un-masculine, to express the possession of that latter view of the world? Is there not a certain strength in shouldering its unassigned burdens?
I think there is. And for that, I’m not sorry.