In June, Pantene produced a video as part of their “Shine Strong” campaign showing thirty seconds of women over-apologizing followed by thirty seconds of things women can say instead of “sorry.” It touched off a storm of conversation in my friend group. We all felt we were guilty of it in some regard, and a couple of our male partners were driven up the wall by our tendency to apologize, but it was a hard habit to explain. The one woman who expressed making a conscious effort to not apologize told us how often she was called “bossy” or “mean,” or as one horrendous performance review from her boss put it, “not nice or warm enough to her colleagues.” (You know how you hear that all the time in men’s performance reviews. Excuse me while I bang my head against a wall.)
The conversation stayed with me. Then one day last month on the train home from work, a woman approached me and gestured to the empty window seat next to mine.
“Sorry,” she said, “but could I sit there?”
“Oh, sure! Sorry!” I said as I hopped up into the aisle to give her the seat.
I stood standing for a few seconds. Had we really both apologized for her needing a seat? It bothered me so much I decided that for one week I was going to keep track of every time a woman apologized to me. And I was going to apologize for nothing. Even when things were my fault. It was so much more difficult than I’d anticipated.
The unapologetic facts
In 2010, Karina Schumann and Michael Ross published the study “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior.” It was the first study to take a scientific look at the stereotype that women are the more apologetic gender, and it found that women were thirty-seven percent more likely to apologize than men.
I didn’t know of the study until the Pantene video, but it seemed to be everywhere afterwards. Over-apologizing was reported on by several major media outlets, and in response articles to the video women admitted to apologizing for everything from a bad shot in a tennis match to bumping into a family member in the kitchen.
Though some felt the tendency to apologize was a sign of being more empathetic, my feeling was that all the shit I was being sorry for could be put down to habit and not being confident enough to simply say what I meant. It’s not that I walk around everyday feeling insecure. But interrupting someone or sharing an off-topic thought or stepping on someone’s foot without apologizing seemed… less nice. Which reminded me of my friend’s unfair performance review, where she was scolded for not being “nice enough.”
Being a “nice girl” was a stereotype I had a lot of feelings about, especially given that I grew up only caring about being nice and how much people liked me and never saying anything that someone might disagree with. Then I went to a women’s college and rounded out my college experience by making a man cry after he insulted me. So why did I still feel the need to be so sorry about everything? Turns out, it was a combination of social expectation and simple habit.
The week of women apologizing to me
At the end of the first day of my experiment, I accidentally apologized for buying yogurt we already had, and then said, “Oh man, I’m not supposed to be apologizing for things this week! Sorry about that.” While my fiancé burst into laughter, I considered how bone-deep this habit had become and how hard it was going to be to break. I think my exact thoughts were: “Well, fuck.”
But listening to other women apologize made me extra conscious of the things I was saying myself.
One woman apologized to me as she came out of a public restroom because I was waiting in line to use it. Another woman apologized to me for going into a public restroom that she was waiting in line to use. A colleague apologized for spilling water on her own desk; my college roommate pre-empted asking me a favor by saying “sorry”; a woman I was in the elevator with apologized for almost getting off at the wrong floor. My list of apologies is longer than I could have imagined.
Meanwhile, one day while I was having lunch in a coffee shop, a man approached me and said the following: “Excuse me, but you’re right in the shot I want to get for Instagram. Could I get you to stand up for just a few seconds?” When I did, he moved my chair with my purse on it, snapped the photo, and said, “Cool! Thanks!” and then walked away without putting my chair back. Five minutes after I sat back down, a woman came up and said, “I’m so sorry, but can I steal this chair from you?” It was an empty chair I was obviously not using. And she was sorry to take it away. But I mean… was she?
Are we really saying “sorry” when we apologize for these everyday actions? Or is it just a way to be unobtrusive? To get what we want without having to disturb someone? To enter and exit the stage with as little fuss and drama as possible, barely there in the first place? I don’t think it’s an accident that I both worry more about my weight than my fiancé does and also apologize more. There is something in me that seems to think the less space I take up, the better.
At the end of the week, though, I stepped on someone’s foot and the first words that came out of my mouth weren’t an apology. They were, “Whoops! Well, that was graceful. Did I hurt you?” I hadn’t. And the world moved right along.
And then came judgment
I’ve apologized way less since my experimental week. It’s been about a month now, and I’m surprised by how some of my relationships changed. A male colleague insisted one day that he be allowed to squish into the backseat of a small car because I was, “a lady” and, “ladies shouldn’t have to contort themselves like that.”
“Dude,” I said, “You’re a foot taller than me. And as a lady, I am also possessed of legs that bend. I’m sitting in the back,” I bit down on the instinct to throw a “sorry” in there. He was the one being an ass. “You know, they say chivalry is dead. I guess you’re the one who killed it,” he said. He told that story for days.
But you know what? He told it to our mutual superior one day while we were waiting for a meeting to start—a woman I’ve always admired but never quite connected with—and she smiled at me and said, “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”
I did apologize to the dog for waking up late one day and making him wait for a walk, so let’s not call this habit broken just yet. But it’s easier and easier to not apologize for things that, I’m realizing, were never my fault to begin with. I exist. I’m not going to be sorry for that.