I’m not sorry?

It’s been a long time since I posted, and since I have more followers than I ever thought I’d have I felt that I should start this newest blog entry with an apology. The problem is that I’m not supposed to do that anymore. Or something.

According to a new Pantene ShineStrong video which can be found here

women need to stop apologizing so much, because apologies are a sign of weakness and subservience. Evidently, women say “I’m sorry” far more often than men do. “I’m sorry,” according to the scenes in the video, seems to have become women’s go-to expression when we are asking a question in a meeting, need to shuffle over to make room for someone, walk into someone’s office, hand a child over to our spouse, or steal the covers in bed. And it’s getting annoying, making us seem weak, and undermining our confidence.

Instead, Pantene proposes, when women interrupt someone in a meeting to ask a question, we should say, “I have a question.” When we walk into someone’s office we should say, “Good morning, do you have a moment?” We should not move over to make space for others but instead hold our ground and keep the arm of the chair for ourselves. And . . . . my personal favorite, because, really Pantene, you couldn’t come up with anything better? . . .  when we hand the toddler over to our spouses and/or steal the covers at night, we should say “Sorry. Not sorry.” Perhaps we could also deliver that last one with a poke in the eye for good measure.

I have been rebuked many times in my life for saying “I’m sorry” too much. When I was working on my Ph.D. one of the professors I was researching with told me to stop apologizing. I’ve been told by colleagues in meetings that I don’t need to apologize for asking a sincere question. Indeed, every time I say “I’m sorry,” to my husband when he tells me he had a bad day, he responds with, “You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”

Interestingly, the only people who have ever told me that I say “I’m sorry” too much . . . are men. Not one woman–friend, colleague, or antagonist–has ever told me I apologize too much, often because they are apologizing as much as I am. My husband actually makes fun of conversations between one of my best friends and me, saying that if we just cut out the, “I’m sorry”s, “Don’t take this the wrong way”s, “I don’t mean to”s, and “I mean no offense”s we’d cut our conversation time down by at least 20 minutes. Trust me when I tell you that I do NOT apologize for the length of my conversations. Or for handing over the kids. Or for stealing the covers.

As a matter of fact, I would say as a whole that I live my life confidently and unapologetically. I make mistakes, of course. I make poor decisions, I lash out in anger, I respond without fully understanding a situation, I take my kids to task for things they did not do–and in all of those situations, I offer heartfelt and sincere apologies. As a New Yorker transplant in Florida, I’m sure that I’ve offended so many people at my kids’ school at this point that I should just offer a blanket apology for my presence in the parking lot at drop off. Yet most of the time I say what I mean, I mean what I say, I stand behind my decisions, I will absolutely own up to it if I am wrong and, if someone has the courage to confront me about a way that I have (albeit inadvertently) offended them, I will listen and respond and clarify the situation and, of course, apologize if warranted.

Yet, when it comes to the conversational “I’m sorry”s, I do not use that phrase to take blame upon myself for an offense. When I say “I’m sorry” about my husband’s bad day, I’m expressing sympathy–as in “I’m sorry that happened to you,” meant the same way as at a funeral I would say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I’m not taking responsibility for the death of the loved one–if everyone who said they were sorry at a funeral were taking responsibility for someone’s death, we’d all be in jail. I am offering condolences. I am saying, “If I could change this for you, I would, but I am powerless in this situation so all I can give you is my heartfelt sadness that I cannot do more.” I don’t think that shows weakness. Acknowledging powerlessness, as many people will tell you, is often the source of incredible strength.

When I say “I’m sorry” in preface to a question I’m often saying, “I apologize beforehand if this in any way offends you,” or “I apologize if you believe I am interrupting you.” My use of “I’m sorry” is genuine–not reflex, not mindless, and most of all not weak. In that case my use of “I’m sorry,” is, if anything, an exercise in humility–one of the seven blessed virtues that combats the corresponding deadly sin of pride. And yes, that is my Catholic showing. I’m not at all sorry for that! My faith teaches there is strength in humility. There is strength in showing an awareness that you are not the most important person in the room, that you do not always deserve all the attention, that sometimes you ARE interrupting and your question IS offensive because it is based on arrogant ignorance. I teach at a university and I can tell you without apology that I wish a few more people–and I don’t mean students–would say “I’m sorry” before they speak.

Actually, I would like to make an ad teaching men to say “I’m sorry” as much as women do, rather than one telling women to say “I’m sorry” less. Better yet I’d like an ad showing that men and women today are equally guilty of self-centeredness, and how to combat it. So yeah–if your spouse (male or female) is standing at the stove holding the baby while cooking, say “I’m sorry” in the sense of “Hey, I apologize for sticking you with all the household work there, let me help!” and grab the baby before the child is thrust at you. If you (male or female) sit down and your elbows hit BOTH armrests and knock into the arm of the person next to you, look at him or her and say, “I’m sorry” as in “I apologize for intruding on your personal space.” If you’ve taken all the covers and your spouse is cold and he or she grabs the covers back from you, say “I’m sorry” as in “I feel bad that you are cold and I didn’t mean to unconsciously hog the covers.” There are things people SHOULD apologize for: inconsiderateness (conscious or unconscious), lack of situational awareness that causes us to trespass on someone else’s personal space, mistakes, not doing our share of the work. Recognizing when we are doing these things and expressing honest remorse is a good thing. The world needs more self-awareness, humility, and selflessness. Maybe if more of us start apologizing we can start a trend in which humility will transfer to others–God knows our world desperately needs a good dose of it.

In the book Divergent by Veronica Roth the heroine, Beatrice, lives in a world divided into factions. At sixteen each person must choose a faction based the results of an aptitude test that tells them where they are best suited. There are five factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor. The Dauntless are the warriors. The Erudite are the scholars. The Candor are the honest, frank speakers. The Amity are the peaceful ones. The Abnegation are those who focus on selflessness.

In Roth’s world, the Abnegation run the government because it’s believed that only selfless people will make decisions for the greater good. Beatrice starts out in Abnegation. She feels confined and bound, however, by their humility. It’s not that she looks down on them for it–sometimes she does, because it frustrates her to see those she loves acting as if they don’t matter. But most of the time she just doesn’t think she can do it. In her mind, being selfless is too hard. She joins Dauntless because throwing herself from trains and jumping off of buildings seems much easier than suppressing her needs and always thinking of others first.

The Abnegation in Roth’s book are humble. I imagine before they speak they might say, “I’m sorry.” They would never interrupt. They might not even question. They would give the covers before they’d steal them–they’d give the clothes off of their backs if someone was in need. And yet the strongest character in the series believes that she is not strong enough to put herself last. She is not strong enough to be humble.

So. Before we start condemning apologies as weakness, let’s give it some thought. People saying, “I’m sorry,” might be the strongest people in the room. Here’s the best test. It’s called “The Litany of Humility,” sent to me by a good friend a month or so ago. Who out there is strong enough to pray for this, or wish this on themselves? I find this prayer so terrifying I work very hard each night to be strong enough to pray it, and I am often far too proud to get through even half:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed; Deliver me, Jesus. (repeat after each line)
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus. (repeat after each line)
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
That others may be loved more than I; Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. (repeat after each line)
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,

As I try to pray this, I can’t get past “consulted” without starting to balk. I want to be consulted! I want to be praised! And loved! And esteemed! I am terrified of being forgotten! And wronged! And suspected! I don’t want to invite that on myself! I’m not that humble. I’m not that selfless. I’m not THAT STRONG.

But I am strong enough to say “I’m sorry.” So I will. Dear readers, I am sorry that I haven’t posted in so very long. If I had more hours in the day I would post daily, but even now, though I started writing this at 5pm, I’ve had so many interruptions that it’s 11:43pm and my kids are still giggling in their beds in desperate need of a shushing. If this wasn’t summer I’d still probably have papers to read; lunches to pack; uniforms to wash, dry, or fold; lessons to plan; research to do; Girl Scout patches to sew; and miles to go before I sleep. However, it’s July, one of the most wonderful months of the year. My house is organized and clean, there is precious little laundry to do, I am getting at least a two mile run in every day, and my mind is clear enough to write. So, here is the first fruits of my summer vacation. Next will be my long-promised piece on Disney’s Frozen, and why I have no freakin’ problem with Elsa’s awesome dress.

As always, feel free to comment below. Argue with me. Call me out. Disagree with me. I guarantee I’m humble enough to listen to arguments. Many times they even change my thinking!



4 thoughts on “I’m not sorry?

  1. I’m sorry but this is fabulous. (See what I did there?) Sometimes I think you crawl around in my head a little too much! I was admonished up and down in college (by my boss at the library) to stop saying I’m sorry. And while I loved working for her – the frustration of being told every flippin’ day to stop it got very very old. Here’s to being who we are…..and a great reminder on humility as that is one of our VBS words of the week!

  2. Loved your post, Diane! I couldn’t help smiling as I read it. I, too, have been frequently called out for saying “I’m sorry.” My husband and kids tease me about apologizing for apologizing. Sure, it’s partially a cultural thing reflecting gender, age, class, and religion, and sometime my “sorry” is little more than reflex. But it’s also — for me — very personal and political. What am I communicating to my students, my daughter, my sons? Are there more effective ways of expressing humility, concern, or regret? And — here’s the sticky, uncomfortable, examination-of-conscience part — what is my motivation? Am I taking responsibility or just trying to get myself off the hook.? What am I really sorry for?

    On a lighter note, I also had to smile in recognition at your grad school reference. It reminded me of my own interactions with my doctoral advisor. Even as he chided me for apologizing, he could be remarkably self-effacing. As we wrapped up one of our meetings, he handed me a copy of an article he’d written, quietly suggesting that I might find it interesting. When I got to the train, I puled it out to read. It was about the importance of humility in teaching.

  3. Beautiful piece of work, Diane, and well timed for my own journey of growth. Thank you! Much love, Terra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s