Today, I apologized to a door. Really, I said sorry to the person who had just passed through the door, which I had stopped to hold for them. Why would I be apologizing to a stranger I had done a quick favor for? I have no idea. But by the time the stranger had come and gone, I found myself mumbling, “I’m sorry” to a glass door swinging shut behind me. Why am I sorry? What have I done wrong? Why am I talking to an inanimate object? Still, no idea. But I do know that I and most — if not all — of my female friends can relate to this situation. We apologize for walking in the same area, being in a rush, asking for assistance, getting someone’s attention, asking a question — the list goes on. We do it every day, multiple times a day. But where does this incessant need to apologize come from and what are we so busy apologizing for all the time?
The other day, a friend was over baking cookies in my kitchen. He had dropped something on his pants. I said, “Oh no! Did I do that?” He looked at me and calmly replied, “Oh no, don’t worry, I did that.” Regardless of this response, I said, “I’m sorry.” And here it was again: I was apologizing for nothing. Just the fact that he had made a mistake in my presence made me feel like I should take some responsibility for it, despite him telling me that I had nothing to do with his newly-stained pants.
And it’s not just me, it’s almost all of the women in my life. Whether I have simply observed their social habits or talked about it with them in depth, I know I am not alone. It’s simple: we’re apologizing all the time, but without the purpose of an apology. We’re apologizing for nothing. Sorry has become a word synonymous with: excuse me, may I please get through/by, you are in my way, I have misunderstood, that is not what you told me, there must have been a miscommunication, that is not what I said, oops, my bad, and who knows what else. So, it doesn’t really come down to crafting an apology. It doesn’t have anything to do with making up for something we have done wrong.
“I want to take up space whether that space is literal or figurative, in the academic, social, or professional spheres.”
Apologizing is second nature for women, a product of the ways we have been taught to behave both implicitly and explicitly. We are meant to be kind, keep the peace, make no fuss, and take up no space. We apologize all the time, everywhere we go, simply for being there. I apologize when someone moves past me in a cafe line, bumps into me in a sidewalk, or (apparently) walks through the same doorway. I do this all as though I am sorry for being there, sorry for being in the same space as them, afraid that I will take up too much room. I find that habits like these are the hardest to break. It is in habits like these, that aspects of my very normative, lady-like upbringing show through. It is in these tiny ingrained patterns, that I realize I am not immune to the influences that still persist, even in subtle ways, of defining social expectations within the gender binary. So many powerful women that I love and respect share this side to themselves as well, the side that still makes them apologize when they don’t want to, avoid confrontation when they don’t want to, or wear what they don’t want to. In short: no one is immune.
Ultimately, I want to stop apologizing for what I am not sorry for. I want to take up space whether that space is literal or figurative, in the academic, social, or professional spheres. However, I know that this mindset is hard to implement no matter my resolve. Although I don’t think changes like constantly apologizing or using gendered language or a multitude of day-to-day internalized habits, can happen overnight, I do think its good if we can work on recognizing them — and not just women. Everyone can think of ways in which gender creeps into daily words, actions, and behaviors, whether that presence exists in the embracing or refusal of gender norms. Before any of these habits can be truly eliminated, they must be recognized. Maybe, we can all apologize a little bit less. Or, at the very least, we can think about what we really mean when we sorry, and ask ourselves if we really owe anyone an apology.
Feature image by Emma Craft