Sorry, Not Sorry: On apologising too much

I went cold turkey on the word sorry in the name of feminism and it didn't go particularly well. Here's everything I learned...

Feature by Kate Pasola | 31 May 2017

I say sorry too much. In the last month I’ve had my relentlessly apologetic nature pointed out at least ten times. 

One of the interventions took place in a White Russian bar after I hedged a request for a teaspoon between apologies and gratuitous thank-yous. My friend was aghast; “You deserve the teaspoon! Don’t apologise so much.” It was ironic, as historically I’ve teased this woman for her own charmingly deferential disposition. Though she’s an inspiring, powerful and organised person who nails her role at a national economics magazine, she sometimes talks like a female Hugh Grant (except with kinder intentions and 100% less sleaze). “Women say sorry all the time. I know I do,” she continued. “I’m trying to work on it – you should too.”

The next day at a pub quiz I apologised to a Jewish friend for my ignorance to the date of Passover. I’m not Jewish. “Literally, why would you need to apologise for that? Stop it. You apologise all the time,” he responded, going on to explain that he, as a gay man, also finds himself embroidering all his sentences with sorries. “I think women and minorities say sorry a lot because we feel our existence is putting other people out. It’s hard to stop, but we need to.” He described the elation one of his female friends experienced after cutting out unnecessary repentance – I was sold.

So I conducted an experiment to address the situation. Originally, I planned only to quit apologies for trivial things, meaning I reserved ‘sorry’ for strictly serious circumstances. That plan was coming along nicely until a fatal flaw dawned on me – how does someone with a warped grasp of what’s worth an apology suddenly learn where to draw the line? I’m a sorry junkie, and there was only one option for me: cold turkey. Even if only for one day.

...I didn’t last an hour. ‘Sorry’ is so baked into my being that half the time I hadn’t even realised the word had left my mouth before colleagues were pointing it out. And, even when I managed to hold in the urge, I found sneaky ways to circumnavigate the ban. “I know this is a bit of an inconvenience, but…” “this might be my fault, but” “I don’t want you to think I’m bragging, but…” “Oh, wow, I’m in your way here,” “I don’t want to disturb you” and on, and on, and on.

I know what you’re thinking – perhaps it’s just a British thing? After all, we might be a Brexit-voting, Tory-hugging hellhole but by golly do we revel in a good sorry sesh. OK, my apologies could be partially due to Britishness, but I’d be willing to put serious dollar to it having something to do with my womanhood too.

...It’d be a pretty risk-free bet though, as my intuition is supported by a decent amount of research. Though there isn’t much empirical evidence that women apologise more than men, there exist quite a few studies proving that gender can be a predictor of a person’s relationship with the word sorry; when it’s appropriate, when it’s overused and when it’s underused.

A 2015 YouGov poll of 1600 people found that on the whole, men believed both genders got the balance ‘about right’ when it comes to apologising. Meanwhile, 44% of women thought their own gender apologised too much, with only 29% thinking women got the balance ‘right’.

And what did women think about men’s apology patterns? Well, this time only 5% agreed that men apologised too much. A relatively staggering 49% of women thought men apologised too little; 22% stating that men got it ‘about right’. Crossed wires much?

A cursory Google search yields all sorts of opinion pieces on the topic too, from the insightful to the patronising (no need to dwell on the latter). Essayist Sloane Crosley nailed it in her New York Times piece describing those oft mocked female apologies as “tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger for what should be automatic... a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance.” Linguistics professor and workplace language expert Deborah Tannen agreed that women often don’t make their apologies with 100% sincerity; “Often, it has nothing whatsoever to do with an apology but just taking the other person’s feelings into account,” she told Refinery29, “And sometimes, it’s a way to get the other person to apologise.” Sounds about right.

Still, I think that’s only half of the story. I agree with Crosley and Tannen; some of my sorries feel like an arsenal for navigating sticky situations; they demonstrate empathy, they disarm enemies and they help me get what I want when properly asserting myself is proving ineffective or dangerous. Still, my own apology embargo taught me there’s a third strand to this yarn. When you strip away the subtext-rich sorries, left behind is something more toxic – the type of sorry which shows I learned ‘politeness’ through the lens of the patriarchy.

I apologise when bumped into because I assume it’s a consequence of having occupied too much space. I apologise when interrupted because I take it as an indication that I’ve had my turn. I apologise for stating my opinion because that’s how I disarm anyone judging me on my gender, rather than my ideas. I apologise to men if I don’t want to sleep with them because years of being groped and harassed by strangers has taught me my body’s up for barters. I apologise when asking for more – even if it’s only a teaspoon – because somewhere I learned that if my needs even slightly inconvenience someone, I should rethink whether they’re worth fulfilling. That’s not to say I’m a hyper-considerate dreamboat of a human; rather that I’ve taken politeness strategies to the extreme in lieu of learning to assert myself. Caught in the moment, I have absolutely no idea what actually warrants a sorry.

And I’m not alone, by the sounds of it. The notion that women feel there’s simply more to apologise for was researched in a study led by researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. For 12 days, volunteers kept ‘sorry’ diaries, reporting offenses committed and whether or not they apologised for them. Long story short, men tended to utter fewer sorries, but they weren’t actively resisting apologising for their actions – their threshold for what was worth an apology just turned out to be way, way higher.

So there you have it. Going cold turkey on sorries was not only an absolutely ballache, it solved nothing. Cutting down on apologies may well fast-track me to radiating self-assuredness and watertight feminism, but since when was repression a solution to anything? Instead of real-time policing my language, it probably makes more sense to work on all of the shitty narratives lowering my threshold in the first place. ‘Sorry’ isn’t the canker compromising my self-worth and feminism; it’s just a symptom. And, if medical history’s anything to go by, treating the symptoms over the cause never ends well. So for now, the apologies stay. Sorry.