Here are a few of the dumbest things I’ve apologized for in the last week:
- To a waiter, when I asked again for water, after he repeatedly forgot to bring it
- To the dude who bumped into me at a party, spilling his drink down the front of my dress
- To a friend of a friend of a friend I agreed to give advice to, when she had to change the time
I started thinking about sorry this morning after watching the latest empowerment ad from Pantene (yes, the shampoo brand) titled “Sorry, Not Sorry.” In it, we see women apologize at work (“Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?”), at home (“Sorry,” a mom says, handing her baby over to what appears to be her husband), to strangers (the man who bumps a woman as he spreads out in a seat), and friends. It’s followed by a click moment: “Don’t be sorry,” the ad states, followed by a hashtag sales pitch to “Shine Strong.”
As far as ads go, this one is good — and yet when a shampoo brand is telling us to stop apologizing, it’s fair to say we’ve reached a sorry tipping point.
“I realized my sorry habit was bad when I heard myself apologizing to my boyfriend for a burned dinner that he cooked,” my friend Cristen Conger, the creator of a feminist podcast called Stuff Mom Never Told You, told me.
I forwarded her response to another friend. “What’s up with ladies and ‘I’m sorry’?” I asked.
“Sorry I didn’t reply sooner,” she replied, 45 minutes later.
Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear “soft” while making a demand. It falls in the same category as “I hate to ask” or “I know this is a stupid question” or another version of “No offense, but” or ending your statements with a question. It’s bled into our text messages (“sorrrrrryy!!!!!!”), our emails (“SO SORRY for the delay”), our emoji (you know, the bashful “eeek” face), and our workplaces. Even the rise of “sorry-not-sorry” — a joke, and hashtag, that implies I’m saying sorry but I don’t really mean it — is couched in apology. (Can’t we even own the apology–or the insult?!)
“Sorry is a ritualized form meaning something like, ‘I hope this is O.K. with you,’” says Robin Lakoff, a linguist at University of California, Berkeley, and author of the famous linguistic text from the 1970s, Language and Woman’s Place. “It lets people — especially women — get away with saying what the other person doesn’t want to hear.”
But as the Pantene ad conveys accurately, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who says sorry with quite the same frequency.
Some have argued that’s because men don’t want to admit they’re wrong; Deborah Tannen, a gender linguist, has reasoned that men are simply more attuned to the fact that an apology can symbolize defeat. (“Like a wolf baring its neck or a dog rolling over on its back,” she has written, “an apologizer is taking a one-down position.”)
Still other studies have determined that what we deem worthy of an apology differs. In one from 2010, researchers determined that men are just as likely to apologize if they think they’ve committed some transgression, but men and women can easily disagree on what kinds of things require an apology.
“Once, I was my trying to leave a bookstore and my way was blocked by a woman who was sitting on the floor,” screenwriter Nell Scovell tells me. “I hesitated and was about to turn around when she noticed and started to get up. ‘Sorry,’ she said, because she’d been blocking my path. ‘Sorry,’ I said, because I made her move. Then she bumped another woman who turned around and said, you guessed it, ‘Sorry.’ Three grown women all apologizing to each other for no reason in under five seconds. A world record?”
But there are some — repeat some, as in, a few — instances when apologizing makes sense. “In email, where communication is so terribly impersonal,” Alisa Richter, a digital publicist in New York, explains, “phrases like I’m sorry make me feel like I’m coming across as a real human being.” In other cases, perhaps the impulse to apologize is part of the same skill set that allows women to work more collaboratively than men, as studies have shown.
And yet the modern-day apology — at least when it comes to women at work — is rarely an apology at all. We’re not sorry to be asking a question, we’re simply trying to be polite. We’re trying to make a statement, a direct one, without being deemed “bossy” or “too aggressive.” Sorry is simply another way of downplaying our power, of softening what we do, to seem nice.
“Women know they have to be likable to get ahead. Apologizing is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening,” says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl. “Apologizing is one way of being deemed more likable.”
And yet, how can we be deemed likable and competent if we’re always sounding defensive or unsure?
As I was making edits on this piece, I was sitting at a panel at an advertising conference in France, where the moderator — Sheryl Sandberg — had just finished speaking about marketing to women. She showed the Pantene ad, and Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, chimed in. “Sorry, but I want to back up,” she began — only to catch herself.
Jessica Bennett is a contributing columnist at TIME.com covering the intersection of gender, sexuality, business and pop culture. A former Newsweek senior writer and executive editor of Tumblr, she is also a contributing editor for Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s foundation, Lean In. You can follow her @jess7bennett.