Time for one thing: We're a sorry bunch

Women are expert at reflexive apologizing for almost anything, but Elizabeth Rapoport points out that we could really have something to be sorry for if we don't stop

Published January 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Women are in a sorry state. We're always apologizing for everything. I'm
not talking about the acts of contrition we perform for genuine
transgressions. I'm talking about the completely unnecessary apologies we
make for things that couldn't possibly be our fault. Here's a short list,
culled from friends and coworkers, of the trivia we apologize for:

  • Not remembering what friends take in their coffee (how could we care
    so little about them?)

  • Phoning at a time when the other person "can't talk right now" (how
    could we not know?)

  • Falling down or spilling coffee on ourselves (obliging others to
    help or forcing them to experience an uncomfortable spasm of pity)

  • Giving work to assistants paid to do it
  • Championing ideas our coworkers don't like
  • Our breasts (our motto: "The Wrong Size, Guaranteed!")
  • Being too tired for sex
  • Having morning sickness (because it's borderline OK to be
    pregnant at work, just not to act it, or because we're afraid our
    fecundity will distress the Clomid crowd)

  • Not agreeing to organize the second grade class's field trip
    (because we're not sure we can sandwich it in, what with the full-time job
    and volunteering for literacy)

  • Not buying Air Hypies for our kids' feet

Picture the flurry of prophylactic apologizing when two women connect by
phone: "Oh, hi, I'm sorry, I've been meaning to call you --"

"No, I'm
sorry, I meant to call you last week!"

I myself have been known to
apologize to my kids for making them pancakes
instead of waffles (when they should in fact be grateful I don't wedge a
cold Pop Tart between their mandibles as I propel them toward the bus
stop); to baby sitters for interrupting their valuable "Ally
-watching, phone-call-making time (which I heavily subsidize to
the tune of $5 an hour) to ask them to put my kids to bed; for not being
cheerful enough at a time when I was weathering a minor depression and
furtively gulping St. John's Wort like Chiclets. You should see me and my
friend Janet play tennis. With every failure to drop the ball precisely at
the partner's feet comes a forelock-tugging rite of self-mortification.
It's a miracle we don't trade in our racquets for birch switches and
eliminate the middleman.

Many women have adopted the labor-saving device of issuing blanket
apologies in advance of any transgression. In "Breaking Point: Why Women
Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create Their Lives,"
author Martha Beck quotes Doris, age 50: "It seems to me that all I ever
do is apologize. I'm sorry I don't think
for myself enough, I'm sorry I don't agree with other people's opinions
enough, I'm sorry I'm not strong enough, I'm sorry I'm too strong. I'm
sorry, sorry, sorry. I ought to just wear a sign that says I'M SORRY,
and people could attach it to everything I do." As my coworker Lee explained, "I
apologize for everything. I use it as punctuation. I use it so often I
don't even know I'm saying it, like, 'I'm sorry, are you done with the
copier?' Why did I say that? What did I have to be sorry for?"

A lot of these apologies are reflexive expressions of
empathy, a shortcut for "I'm sorry you had to go through that." As
sociolinguist Deborah Tannen, author of "Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men
in the Workplace -- Language, Sex and Power," put it, women's apologies
aren't so often literal, but a "ritual way of restoring balance to the
conversation ... expressing regret that something happened without taking or
assigning blame. In other words, 'I'm sorry' can be an expression of
understanding -- and caring -- about the other person's feelings rather than an
apology." (Tannen noted that in those instances when women are literally
apologizing, they often do so in an Alphonse/Gaston kind of way -- I say I'm
sorry, then you say you're sorry. Anyone who responds to the apology
instead with "OK, I accept your apology" has shattered the social

While researching her book, Tannen actually sat in the back of boardrooms
tape-recording what women
say and how often they say it. She confirms that women are queens of
ritual apology in the workplace. Does this orgy of self-deprecation exact
a price? Tannen noted a situation in which she recorded a high number of
apologies from one employee, the sole woman in an informal brainstorming
session, who salted with a disclaimer each bright idea she wanted to toss
into the mix. Tannen wondered whether these frequent acts of
contrition had anything to do with the fact that the woman received a lower
bonus than her peers despite the fact that they all agreed that she was the
best in the group.

It's bad enough that most of us are probably apologizing for the nose prints
we're leaving on the glass ceiling; what's worse is that, deep down, we may
believe what we're
saying. Our reflexive apologies freight our
contributions -- at work, at home, anywhere -- with the subconscious
message that these are not the fruit of our hard labor and native
intelligence but random buckshot from loose cannons, some of which is
shooting us in the foot. With our constant apologies, we discount our own
merchandise as shopworn or unworthy, then are chagrined or amazed when
vendors start remaindering it.

All this apologizing business is, to put it mildly, insane. I'm all for us
feeling each other's pain, and I appreciate the role of apology as social
lubricant, but I'm starting to feel that empathy is overrated. I'm just
superstitious enough to picture some maternal divinity wagging her
ectoplasmic finger at us and intoning, "You say you're sorry, young lady?
Well, I'll give you something to be sorry about!"

This sorry stuff has got to stop. Here's my modest proposal, now in beta
testing in
the New York metropolitan area: Every time you catch yourself
apologizing when you've got nothing to be sorry for, put a quarter in a
jar. When the jar fills up, you must use the proceeds to buy yourself a
facial, massage, manicure, pedicure or similar irredeemable self-indulgence.
You're shooting for wonderfully pointless personal luxury here: bikini-line
wax, black market Fen-phen, cotton panties, feminine hygiene products and
dental floss are not considered acceptable purchases for this purpose.

I first proposed this idea to sociologist Martha Beck,
whose work I cited above. From her interviews with over 300
women struggling to integrate contradictory social dictates that tell us we
have to be independent AND breadwinners AND stay-at-home moms AND love
machines, Beck concluded that most of us deserve all-expense-paid spa
vacations, whereas in fact we're mostly sorry we're not weaving our hair
shirts in record time. I'm determined that we all get ourselves to Club
Med, one quarter at a time.

Break out your jars and get your
girlfriends to do the same. Call each other on every pointless apology.
Maybe if we start to notice how often we say we're sorry, we'll stop
actually being sorry. It's worth a shot.

I realize there are probably a lot of confident, self-actualizing women out
there who are reading this and saying, "Hey, I'm not like that; I don't
apologize for anything." And to all of you, all I can say is this: I'm
sincerely sorry to take up your time.

By Elizabeth Rapoport

Elizabeth Rapoport is an executive editor at TimesBooks/Random House. Her last story for Salon was How many working fathers does it take to screw in alightbulb? She is a contributor to "Mothers Who Think: Tales ofReal-Life Parenthood," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, forthcoming from Villard Books in May.

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