A classic tale.
More years ago that I’d like to admit, I was in a fantastic class called Power and the Body, taught by the remarkable George Mentore. The course covered all kinds of fascinating topics, from mutilation to reproduction, from prisons to stilettos. Obviously, you can’t have a course called Power and the Body without getting into many stratified feminist topics. Much of it focused on Western culture and was a wonderful opportunity to examine how culture encourages us (women) to see ourselves and how it encourages others to see us.
I’m sharing these details because they help illustrate the ridiculousness of the scene below.
Girl raises hand in class. “I’m sorry, but I have a question.”
George: “Yes, that’s why you’re here. You don’t need to apologize.”
Girl: “I’m sorry?”
George, not unkindly and with a touch of amusement: “Presumably you’re here because you have questions. You all are. Don’t be sorry for it.”
Girl, flushed with embarrassment: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
George, with a sigh: “What’s your question?”
Girl, trying desperately to recover composure: “Sorry, but I just wanted to better understand…”
I don’t actually remember the rest of her question.
This happened a million years ago, but I still remember it as if it were yesterday. This is not uncommon. If you didn’t experience something like this in school, you know someone who did. If you don’t think you know someone who did, you can still find stories like this all over the internet. Seriously, this is not unique.
At the time I witnessed this sad spectacle, I’ll admit I was a little bit smug. I wasn’t an apologizer. That’s just ridiculous. Why would anyone apologize for having a question?
Wrong. I just didn’t recognize my own reflection when the mirror was held in front of my face. Turns out, I am an apologizer. And no one had called me on it.
I apologize if someone bumps into me on the sidewalk – even when it’s clearly the other person’s fault. I apologize at work if my lunch is in the microwave and someone else is in line to use the microwave after me. I’m particularly sorry when I think I might be breathing the air someone else might want to breath. Sometimes I find myself apologizing just to break the silence!
I’m not the only one. I look at female coworkers and friends who are my age or older, and it’s rampant.
But not all apologies are created equal.
Apologies coming from some of us seem insincere. Those are the women who toss “sorry” around just to get the formality out of the way so that they can move on with their day. They don’t mean it – they just do it out of habit. They say “Sorry”, but what they really mean is, “Hey asshole, if you stopped staring at your phone while you walk down the street, maybe you wouldn’t run right into me standing at the crosswalk. Oh wait, never mind. Keep doing what you’re doing and maybe natural selection will weed you out of the gene pool.”
Then there are others who are truly mean every apology – just hoping that someday, one of these contritions will actually excuse our existence. For these people “Sorry” is an indication of self-condemnation for some perceived (and often imaginary) violation. I have often been this type of apologizer.
It’s infuriating. No one likes hearing unnecessary apologies, regardless of whether they are the self-flogging type or the veiled dagger type. As for myself, I HATE apologizing all the time. Every misplaced “sorry” I utter leaves me feeling marginalized and counterfeit – and I’m doing it to myself. While I’m not going to be Whitney Houston about this and claim that I’m every woman, I am going to go out on a ledge and assume that, generally, we all HATE being so goddamned sorry all the goddamned time.
But maybe some of us are not sorry.
There are a couple very intelligent and charismatic young women who work at the frozen custard shop my husband and I own. They are about the same age I was when I sat in George Mentore’s class, and I have observed something wonderful about them.
Our shop is small, so moving around in the back is a bit like a chaotic ballet of dessert and dirty dishes. Naturally, we bump into each other a lot. We often need to back up or make way for someone carrying large, heavy equipment or hot cookie trays. It’s fast-paced, but very friendly.
After working with these young women in tight quarters for a few weeks, I started to feel very awkward and I didn’t know why. I spent several hours puzzling, and it finally dawned on me: I was apologizing all the time and they were not!
The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous I felt. As an owner and a “boss” of sorts, I was disappointed in myself for failing to be a stronger leader. Why was I apologizing for taking up space while I did the dishes in a shop that I own? Absurd!
Then I thought about the young women who work for us. They only apologize if there’s a cause for it. They do not apologize for carrying dishes to the back or for needing to reach a utensil. It doesn’t occur to them to be sorry for occupying space.
Sometimes, for me, there is a vast distance between objectively understanding a concept and really knowing something. As I stared at the stark difference between my behavior and theirs, I could almost hear the distant voice of my professor saying, “That’s why you’re here. You don’t need to apologize.”
I finally got it.
Resolving to shake the habit.
The state of constant feminine remorsefulness is merely a residue from a time when our culture demanded it. Expectations have changed, and are changing still – yet many of us are not seizing up these changes to enjoy for ourselves. The sad irony is that if we fail exercise and stretch these cultural changes – like not being sorry all the time – we slow down forward progress.
I’m done slowing down progress. I’m done with misplaced or insincere apologies. Sure – if I accidentally step on your foot or elbow you in the face (not uncommon in Lindy Hop), I will be very sorry.
But otherwise, I am working hard to change the habits that were bestowed upon me. I don’t want them anymore.
I’m here. I exist. I’m doing my best.
I will not be sorry for this.