Whether we like to admit it or not, from a young age, women are conditioned to apologise excessively, something that undermines the authority and power we possess. This is seen in so many aspects of life: in work, at school and even at home. The idea of constant apologies is perpetuated under the guise of being ideal and polite. The inherent difficulty in shaking off the habit of over-apologising derives from cultural norms of polity and the notion of good manners.
However, these deep-rooted cultural norms must be inspected in order to evaluate the female position in society, to help us realise the ways it can hold us back. As the acclaimed author Chimamanda Adichie said, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” and this occasionally manifests in the form of language that undermines our authority. In some cases, “sorry” contributes to the silencing of our voices, affirming the false notion that our ideas are ultimately inferior to those of men. This is because by saying sorry, we may be ‘shrinking’ ourselves in the sense that the apology anticipates a negative perception of the idea to which it is attributed, even though it may be a perfectly valuable contribution. In this way, overapologising may be holding women back from the progress we deserve.
This is not to say that the word “sorry” is fundamentally wrong, but unpacking the
impact this word has in its excessive use helps to expose the unconscious ways in which we as women validate the patriarchal system that often works against us. “Sorry” can help to communicate the realisation that we may be wrong, or can signal empathy and responsibility. However, it is much more than a verbal cue to balance a conversation, as it often works to undermine or discredit the opinion or validity of the speaker when used unnecessarily. In a classroom discussion, for instance, saying sorry as a woman could suggest on a subliminal level that we are comfortable with being a passive observer in a discussion. “Sorry” implies an acceptance of passivity because the act of apology seems to extend to the act of communicating itself, thereby implying that it is acceptable for women to remain unheard. Excessive apologies confirm stereotypical views of women being less capable of action and intellectual thought than men. This exposes overapologising’s very anti-feminist root, as it works to confirm oppressive views suggesting that women are intellectually incapable, which is far from the case.
“Sorry” is a magic word, churned out automatically by most, but often for all the wrong reasons. Many over-apologise in order to be perceived as pleasant or polite. Some even say it to create a superficial sense of resolution. But upon closer inspection, the word contributes to the erasure of female voices as it often translates to “I hope my opinion does not intimidate you” or “I apologize for taking up space.” These subtle signals may keep women from accessing the power they deserve. Furthermore, these notions build into an oppressive structure that, as women, we must deconstruct: one that tells us that asserting authority and agency is wrong. I maintain that the word “sorry” is not always problematic and for this reason it would be unnecessary to suggest that the word should be banned from use. However, this serves as a consideration of the negative impacts it imposes on individuals by playing into a narrative of female inferiority. Maybe it’s “not that deep.” But with an awareness of role overapologising plays in the hegemonic power structures that tend to limit the power of women, perhaps unlearning the act of overapologising is a step in the right direction.
Written by Funmi Lijadu