Plenty of undesirable words have worked their way into my vocabulary. “Like” certainly slips out more than I care to admit, I’m quite sure I’ve obnoxiously said things along the lines of “BRB” out loud and I routinely use curse words as nouns, verbs and adjectives (sometimes all in the same sentence). But over the years, no word has become such a stubborn but undesirable addition to my lexicon as “sorry.”
At some point, I began using “sorry” as a synonym for “excuse me.” It came to mean, “I didn’t see you there and you startled me!” and “I have a question” and “I’m carrying so many things that I’m taking up more space on the subway than usual.” It rarely meant, “I made a poor decision or did something wrong and it impacted you negatively. I recognize this and feel bad about it and would like to make things better between us.”
I’m certainly not alone in the habit. Report after report show that women overuse “sorry,” and my own ad hoc research confirmed this. For a couple of weeks, I took notes on when people told me they were sorry. Women offered apologies all the time, and hardly ever for reasons that merited one: They were washing a dish in the office sink while I waited to fill my water bottle; their food was in a microwave I’d tried to use; they nearly bumped into me walking out of a room I was trying to walk into. Men, on the other hand, were apt to say things like, “Sink’s all yours!” And, “Let me get that out of your way.” And, “Excuse me, go ahead.” None of these things are any less polite than a submissive “sorry.”
I decided it was time to cut it out: no more frivolous use of “sorry” for me. I could be a polite and effective communicator without apologizing for things I had every right to be doing.
This was far more easily said than done. I don’t know at what point I learned this behavior, but it is deeply ingrained — and proved very difficult to unlearn.
In the first few days, I was hyper-aware of my urge to say that I was sorry, but that didn’t necessarily mean that I said it any less. Some sentences just didn’t feel complete without it. I’d squeak out a friendly “excuse me, please” from the back of a crowded elevator when it hit my floor, but it just didn’t seem like enough. By the time I had shuffled my way out the doors, I’d given in and added a “sorry” to all the people I had brushed past. What was I apologizing for? That’s literally how elevators work: They fill up with people, they stop at floors and people get off of them. Sometimes the people who get on first also get off first, and the other elevator riders have to spend approximately four seconds of their day stepping aside for them. It’s a pretty basic social contract, and certainly nothing I could control.
Another repeated challenge: asking questions, particularly at work. How was I supposed to start a conversation, whether in person or over Gchat, with someone who was engrossed in their own work without kicking it off with “Sorry, but can I ask you something…”? Again, I had to wonder: What was I sorry for? For not knowing something? There’s no shame in that. For wanting to know something? I have every right to seek out information that is not only relevant to my work but that would arguably make me better at it. For interrupting — or, god forbid, bothering — someone? That’s a more legitimate concern, but I decided that instead of starting the interaction with an unnecessary apology, it would be just as good — no, better — to say thanks for their time, attention and knowledge.
What I realized is that there’s a subtle — and yet, very important — difference between acknowledging being involved in inconveniencing someone and taking the blame for it. If terrible traffic makes me late to meet someone, I’ll give them a heads up as soon as I can, recognize that waiting sucks and thank them genuinely for their patience. Maybe I’ll buy them a cup of coffee as a sign of appreciation. I will not act as if I’m at fault for the three-car pile-up that caused miles of gridlock. If I’m walking along a narrow sidewalk toward someone else, and that person stops to let me pass, I’ll smile and thank them and pick up my pace. I will not say “sorry,” as if I’ve made some error in judgment by taking up space in a public place.
That’s not to say I don’t screw up sometimes. I do. Royally. I can be impatient and impetuous and insensitive, and all sorts of other things that lead me to make mistakes. And when those mistakes happen, I say — and really mean — “I’m sorry.” This isn’t about not holding myself accountable for my actions; it’s about no longer reflexively blurting out an apology I don’t really owe. It’s about changing my default setting from unnecessary guilt.
“Sorry” had become a crutch for me — and for many other women, I’m sure. Saying it was a habit, and one that seemed pretty harmless, as far as habits go. But overusing “sorry” is a lazy way of communicating that comes with a lot of baggage. These off-hand apologies may have implied that I was polite, friendly and respectful, but they also indicated a host of other attributes, including that I was meek and felt inadequate. Those last two traits are not part of the image I want to project — and most importantly, that’s not how I want to feel.