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My feminine, compulsive "sorry": I apologize for everything from having an opinion to taking up space

It can be easier to apologize than to deal with conflict, but what price do women pay for all this polite remorse?


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Kristen Arnett
December 29, 2015 4:06AM (UTC)

On average, I’d say I apologize about 15 times a day. That sounds ridiculous. That is fucking insane. At first I thought that couldn’t be right, there was no way that I legitimately said the word “sorry” that many times out loud. Then I consciously counted. Maybe I don’t say that exact word, but I definitely cough up some form of an apology over a dozen times – daily. I apologize for how I’m feeling, where I’m walking, or for someone else’s problems that have nothing to do with me. I feel especially sorry for bothering someone else with my problems. If I’m talking to another female of my acquaintance, she’s probably apologizing for bothering me with her problems, and then maybe I apologize for making her feel like she can’t talk to me. I couch my phrases in “maybes” and “probablys” and other words meant to make my sentences seem less assertive or aggressive. I’m sorry about my body all the time – enough to hide my tampons in a pocket or my purse when I walk to the bathroom, even though I work in a library and the majority of my co-workers are women.

I’m hyper-aware of how much space I take up, sorry for the swing of my arms and the jut of my hips. When I pass co-workers in doorways or on the stairs, I apologize for getting in their way, even if there’s plenty of room for both of us, even if I’m the way who was there first. If I’m walking across campus, I’ll move onto the grass to give someone else space on the sidewalk. Once, another woman walked toward me on that stretch of pavement and we simultaneously moved onto the grass. We laughed about it and we both apologized, but neither of us got back up onto the sidewalk. Neither of us wanted to be the one who wasn’t sorry enough.

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Being sorry isn’t always a bad thing. It helps me find humor in awkward situations; it allows me to see situations more clearly. Apologizing provides space around topics that are too conflict-heavy to consider rationally, and it allows others comfort, too – a comfort that I get to provide. Sorry says, “I see you. I understand you. I know what you’re going through.” Apologizing to someone means I see more than one side of an argument. It means I’m willing to compromise. 

But lately, I started wondering, what does it really mean to be sorry, and is it possible to be too sorry, to be sorry too much of the time? Most of the time, I say the words unthinkingly. It’s habitual. For example, yesterday I apologized to someone because I was talking to them about a book and I said that I didn’t really like the style. It was too biographical; not enough plot progression – for me, though, maybe other people would like that style? I don’t know, maybe I just can’t understand what they’re doing – that’s probably it, right? Sorry, I’m sure it’s actually great.

Why did I feel the need to apologize? The point was that the person might be offended or could think I was belittling the author out of jealousy – and that remote possibility triggered a response in my brain. An apology serves as an incantation to ward off bitchiness. If I pre-apologize for my mood or for saying something that someone might not like, I’m preemptively correcting their impression of me by chanting this mantra. If I say sorry enough times, the other person will forgive me for something I haven’t even done yet. I will be beyond reproach. Being sorry is easier than dealing with conflict. It’s much less stressful. If I apologize for something, I can shunt away a conversation that might prove too difficult to handle. It allows an argument to slide out of sight. We don’t have to prolong an uncomfortable situation if I’m sorry for what I did or if I’m sorry for something you don’t like. It’s easier to be sorry for something than to deal with the repercussions of someone else’s discomfort.

Here are other ways I chose to be sorry today:

  • For eating lunch because I’m eating at a time someone wanted to ask me a question about work
  • For feeling irritated that someone bothered me during my lunch break, but maybe they didn’t know, and the tone I just used could have hurt their feelings?
  • For asking someone a work-related question when they were busy working, even though we’re both at work and it should be fine, they just looked super busy and maybe I was interrupting them
  • For writing an essay about female apologies – because I think that this will possibly annoy people and they’ll be mad at me and I don’t want to deal with their unhappiness

Let’s break this down. Why am I sorry? Because I don’t want to deal with someone else’s emotions about a way I choose to feel or behave. This indicates that I would rather deal with hiding how I feel about something than make you feel upset. If we’re looking at the situation like a line graph, with everyone else’s feelings on one side and my own on the other, I will actively choose to slide the scale closer to your happiness.

The only problem is that lately, much of my apologizing is angry-apologizing, and it’s cyclical. I get mad and then I apologize and I’m still angry so I keep apologizing. I’m not sitting around feeling bad about things. Sorry for me feels like childhood sorry, like when I was 8 and broke a glass of red Kool-Aid and tried to hide it by mopping the mess up with a shirt from the laundry basket. I’m sorry I got caught and I’m sorry someone’s upset with me. I’m not sorry for what I did; I’m sorry that I’m forced to deal with your feelings while mine roil around in my own head like coffee that’s been cooking on a burner all day.

My anger is embarrassing. I’m saying, “I’m sorry,” but really I’m sorry for myself.

And of course, the word “sorry” is often feminized. By feminized, I mean that our society promotes apologies as passive. To apologize is to soften, to admit fault, to weaken. The first person to apologize is seen as the one willing to admit defeat. Merriam-Webster tells us the term is “used to introduce disappointing or bad news in a polite way.” Women are told not to cause a scene. We are instructed to say sorry, to be the one willing to smooth things over, even if it means saying you’re wrong when you know that you’re right. Growing up, I was repeatedly told the story of Mary and Martha – how when Jesus came to visit, Mary was the sweet one, the one who sat docilely and listened. Martha was the one who bothered everyone by asking for help when she should have held her tongue. We were given coloring sheets in Sunday school depicting sweet, beautiful Mary and grumpy, angry Martha. Martha was the one who was wrong. Martha had to apologize. Her face was sorry; lined and perpetually worried. Don’t be a Martha, I was told, meaning: be delicate, be polite, be sorry.

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When I was 12, I went with my family on a trip to North Carolina. We did this every summer because it was cheap and we could all caravan together in one of those oversize tropic traveler vans – the ones with the swivel seats and wood paneling and the world’s smallest television set that only played VHS tapes. Every afternoon my family would eat lunch at a diner that served a huge selection of homemade pies. Once at this restaurant, I decided to order the oyster stew, which the waitress had declared a local delicacy. When I told my father what I wanted, he made a big deal out of telling me how much I was going to hate it.

“It’s not what you think it is. You’re gonna be sorry.”

I ordered it anyway.

It came out before anyone else’s food; a small blue bowl of hot milk bordered by packages of crackers. Everyone stared at me as I stirred the broth. When I brought my spoon back up, the bowl held what I thought resembled a boiled eyeball.

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My father smiled. “You’re sorry now, aren’t you?”

I put the spoon in my mouth and chewed the eyeball. The gristle snapped between my teeth, like biting through a ball of rubber bands. I ate until everything was gone. I stared at my father and I drank every drop of the warm, oily milk. I wiped my face with a paper napkin and ordered a big hunk of strawberry pie and drank three glasses of coke. I was not sorry for that then, but I’m sorry thinking about it now.

A related thing I’m sorry for: my relationship with my father. I care too much about what he thinks, care enough that I’ll spend 20 minutes telling someone why I don’t care about what he thinks. I apologize in my head, over and over again, because I’m sorry that we don’t understand each other, and I’m sorry that I disappointed him by turning out gay. Once he and I got into an argument about why I couldn’t name a stray cat “Butch.”  I was 12. I asked why it mattered to call it “Butch,” even if it was a female, because wasn’t a name anything you’d like it to be? He countered by pulling out the dictionary and forcing me to read the Merriam-Webster definition – aloud – to a roomful of relatives.

Butch: (adjective)

1 : notably or deliberately masculine in appearance or manner

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2 : closely cropped <a butch haircut>

I identify as femme. I’m sorry about this sometimes, because I wonder how much of it stems from that time my father told me that he only liked long hair – that girls with long ponytails looked especially beautiful. Once in third grade, I got my hair cut at a salon. The woman who cut my hair that day had a cold. I remember her eyes were red and drippy and she kept tilting my head with fingers that dug and pinched. Instead of a trim, she gave me a bob that tucked neat under my chin. When she was done, I looked in the mirror and cried because I knew it wasn’t pretty. My mother apologized to the woman for me. The woman apologized to me and then apologized to my mother. When we got to the car, my mother told me she was sorry. She said that it would grow back out. Maybe it never did. According to Merriam-Webster, “butchness” is also a noun.

Sorry could mean that I love you more than I love me. Sorry probably means that I don’t love myself enough to deal with whatever conflict is causing the apology.

Say my family’s Southern Baptist. Say I’m 8 years old and it’s revival weekend, which means they’ve got all the big names down from Atlanta mopping sweat off their foreheads with giant hankies as their shouts slap at your ears no matter how low you huddle in your seat. Say I need to pee. Say I walk down to the front of the church to ask my mom if I can use the bathroom. Say my mom’s on her knees praying and when she sees me there she confuses this pee-walk with a desire to come to Jesus.

Choose your own adventure: Do I tell her that I just needed to use the bathroom, even though she’s happy-sobbing through her Mary Kay purple eye shadow? Or do I nod when she asks if I finally prayed for deliverance?

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They take me to the lake the very next weekend to get baptized because they’re renovating the church building and the baptismal isn’t finished yet.  I open my eyes underwater to try and see Jesus down there and there’s only the preacher’s khaki pants and algae-muck and a faded Pepsi can. So maybe my name is mistakenly written in the Book because I just had to pee really bad at church one time.

What would an apology do to fix this? Or my relationship to my father? Or my relationship to myself? Maybe prayer is just a constant state of sorry.


Kristen Arnett

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