When we begin every sentence with “I’m sorry, but…” we think we’re being polite, but we’re really just undermining ourselves. Emily Heist Moss explains why all the unnecessary apologizing needs to stop.
It’s a muggy Sunday morning in Chicago. There’s an 8-years-old girl in neon sneakers playing tennis with her mother on the court next to mine. “I’m sorry,” she calls every 45 seconds. She knocks the ball into the net and she’s sorry. She misfires a backhand and she’s sorry. She homeruns a shot over the fence and she’s sorry. Her toss to her mother comes up short and she’s sorry. She needs a water break, or to tie her shoes, and she’s sorry. I want to shake her and tell her she’s done nothing wrong.
I’m so distracted by the incessant chorus of apologies that I miss an easy volley. I scoop up the ball to tap it back to my partner. My aim is off and it careens into a corner. “Sorry!” I yell, as she scrambles after it. Oh snap.
I apologize if this essay catches you at a bad time. I apologize if it is too long or too short, if I overuse semi-colons, or if the font is not to your liking. I apologize if this piece interrupts your regularly scheduled Internet reading, if it is arriving on your screen too early or late in your day. I apologize if there are too many apologies. I hope you like it, I really do, but if you don’t, well, I’m sorry for that, too.
I catch myself apologizing every day for things that are not apology-worthy. I respond to a work email 15 minutes after it arrives and I begin my reply with an apology for the delay. I preemptively apologize for my questions in meetings, “I’m sorry, but maybe this is obvious…” I apologize when I can’t hear my roommate over the din of the air conditioning. I apologize when I don’t understand the ramblings of an incoherent customer service representative. Today, I caught myself apologizing to my landlord for bothering him, yet again, about the Grand Canyon-sized crevasse that stretches eight feet across my ceiling and leaves puddles on my kitchen floor.
I’m sorry to admit it, but it’s true, I’m an apologist. I want to make things easy for other people and I want them to like me. When I’m about to rock the boat, even a boat that needs rocking, I want to smooth the way with a gentle, honey-coated preemptive apology. So what’s the problem? These days, common courtesy seems like a forgotten relic. More civility can only make the world a kinder, happier place, right?
The problem is that we apologists—some might call us “pleasers”—are a pretty specific crew, women, and that while apologizing might temporarily ingratiate us with the powers that be, in the long run all we do is undermine ourselves. Now, before you get all up in arms about my stereotyping, let me clarify. There are pleasers who are not women, and there are women who are not pleasers. This is a spectrum, one with widely spaced extremes, and all humans fall somewhere along it. Now that we’ve acknowledged the nuance, can we explore some gender-based trends? Do you know who didn’t apologize during my Sunday tennis game? The men playing on the third court. Not once.
Growing up, girls are encouraged to be and rewarded for being pleasers. Be polite, stay out of the way, help out around the house, smile when you’re told to, don’t interrupt the grown-ups talking. Boys get these manners lessons too, I hope, but they are often simultaneously being rewarded for speaking up. Being loud, intrusive, aggressive, ambitious, and self-promoting are acceptable, if annoying, male traits. By adolescence, boys know that they’re rock stars and they stop apologizing for it. Studies show that men who are disliked in the workplace, or thought arrogant, still get raises and promotions. For women, however, being disliked in the office is both personally and professionally damaging.
When I worked up the nerve, after a positive performance review, to finally ask for a raise, my primary concern was how I would appear during negotiations. Even the idea of asking at all seemed demanding and selfish. What an uncomfortable position I was putting my boss in! How inconvenient of me! What if he gets annoyed with me for placing this burden at his feet? Only after discussing my plan with male friends was I able to wrap my head around how silly my concerns really were. I believe the exact wording they recommended I use was, “We both know that I’m the shit, give me more to do and more money to do it.” I was flabbergasted by the apparent “rudeness” and yet it worked like a charm.
The problem with being an apologist is that I trade temporary comfort for long-term self-depreciation. In the short term, more people will probably like me. More people will probably call me “nice.” I may get invited to a few more baby showers. Apologizing for myself will not get me promoted. It will not get me the raise. It will not get my leaky ceiling fixed faster. I think I’m being gracious, but all I’ve actually accomplished is to remind everyone around me of my own insecurity. When I begin a question with “I’m sorry,” my question is instantly less powerful. When I apologize via email, my response is colored by my uncertainty. Instead of appearing confident, capable and in charge, we make ourselves smaller in an effort to be more polite. We really, really need to stop.
There are things for which you should apologize. When you realize you’ve been a jerk to a friend, apologize. When you break a promise, apologize. When you borrow your roommate’s dress and stain it, apologize. But at work? In the real world? The only time you should be apologizing is when you spill hot coffee on your coworker’s laptop.
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.