Apologetic Women

Beginning in 1961 and going all the way through the 1980s, a British author named Peter O’Donnell wrote a series of books about a female version of James Bond. Her name was Modesty Blaise. Anyone remember her? I loved those books and still do – Modesty was the total package in what I looked up to in a female heroine: smart, strong, able to kick butt, and most assuredly taking no prisoners. In her first adventure story I think O’Donnell was afraid that she would be less relatable to female readers if she didn’t have something “feminine” about her. To solve this, he gave her the annoying character trait that after a tough mission, she would seek out a quiet place to have a good cry. I know, right!?

In another book – I forget the title now – she and a male friend have been captured and imprisoned by the bad guys. During the ordeal she’s giving her male friend all these orders so that they can successfully extricate themselves out of the situation and not get killed.  A positive thing one would think. But then she says, “Sorry to play the bossy bitch.”

I was outraged with that bit of dialogue. “Yeah, sooo sorry I’m over here trying to save your life and all…” It was just so out of character for her and so unnecessary, but apparently O’Donnell, again, wanted to give her that “feminine touch” so that his readers would know that just because she could beat up three men with one hand tied behind her back, was a dead-shot with all sorts of guns and so on, she was still ladylike enough to want to apologize for having to order a man around in order to save both their lives!

I thought about Modesty Blaise a few days ago when I went online to try to find a very interesting list about how male and female bosses who exhibit the same strong behavior are perceived very differently in the workplace. I’m sure you know the one. It starts out with “A man is a leader, a woman is bossy” and makes comparisons from there.

I couldn’t find the list but I did find an article from March 31, 2014, entitled “The Social Science Behind Bossiness,” by Daria Burke. In it she points out, “A study cited by the Girl Scouts of America in support of the [Ban Bossy] campaign found that by middle school, 25% of girls are less likely than boys to assume leadership positions for fear of being called ‘bossy.’  This raises an important question: How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them to the top?”

Girls learn that they are expected to behave differently than boys (and of course boys learn this too.) For starters, they can’t be bossy. And if they can’t be bossy they must be polite (which I don’t think are mutually exclusive qualities). They must always mind their manners and help out around the house. Boys can be taught manners too, of course, but if they do something rude it doesn’t really raise eyebrows in the same way as if a girl were to do something equally as rude.

I attended a professional women’s conference years ago. The motivational speaker there talked about this “apologetic” phenomenon and pointed out that women say, “I’m sorry,” all the time.  However, men rarely do (she was speaking of professional/workplace situations, not personal relationships and the like).  Or at least not to the extent that women will.  She explained that language is power and being “sorry” when there is nothing to apologize for weakens a person – especially in the business world.  Men do not want to appear weak whereas women, in an effort to get ahead, want to appear likeable.

A previous employer of mine shared a similar sentiment with me once. There was an error at work – I assumed it was mine. It was not. But assuming it was mine, and prior to even getting at the root of the problem, I apologized profusely for having made it.  Mr. X said he believed women are all too often more than willing to accept blame and therefore apologize automatically before they even realize what they’re actually apologizing for…that it’s almost as if it’s ingrained in them.

I have to agree with him. I see it all the time with myself and the women around me. It doesn’t matter what the situation is.  If we reach for the same book as someone else or we reach for the same coffee cup in the meeting room or if we go to speak at a meeting and another person speaks at the same time, the woman tends to back off and say, “I’m sorry” first.

A friend of mine had a different take on this. She said that she apologizes automatically even when she isn’t in the wrong, not because she thinks she is wrong, but just because it’s polite. And she was confident that all those folks she apologized to really knew that it was they who should be apologizing to her, not the other way around. According to her, the polite thing is always to accept the blame even when someone else is at fault. Ackk!! I’m not sure who made up this ridiculous rule, but I agree that women do tend to feel this way.

But is being overly polite any better than feeling inherently wrong all the time? (Of course, I didn’t point out to my friend that she was talking about social situations, not situations where she was a businesswoman who really needed to command the respect of her peers, both male and female.)

I realize that I’m basically talking semantics.  However, semantics are important. I think that was the motivational speaker’s point.  Language is powerWords are power. They change the entire context of the conversation. The entire feeling of a sentence can be changed when you swap words that are seemingly synonymous, as can the “appearance” of the person uttering them.

For instance, instead of saying “I’m sorry” when the situation calls for it – and only when the situation calls for it – maybe women should say “Excuse me” more often. It might seem like a small, even silly, change, but that way we aren’t apologizing constantly (for something we haven’t done wrong), yet we’re not sacrificing politeness and, hopefully, at the same time we’ll retain – or rather regain, a bit of our personal power.

14 thoughts on “Apologetic Women

  1. Good post, hopefully it will become a conversation piece for male and females alike. You’re not in this by yourself for example if a white man and I are reaching for the same door or both are arriving at the same time it is assumed I am going to allow him to go in first if I get there first hold the door for him and let him in then go in afterwards. Sadly we still live with backwards thinking. I am glad thought you bought this subject up.

  2. It’s a very interesting topic, I used to apologise all the time and I had a friend point out to me that if I said “I’m sorry” all the time no one would ever believe when I actually meant it or when it was actually necessary. I don’t know even why I do it though, but I’ve had to literally train myself to stop it.

    • I was the same way. I try to say “excuse me” or some other appropriate exchange of words now instead of “I’m sorry” when in social/professional situations OR not say anything at all if the situation doesn’t really call for it. I was in the grocery store a while back and the young woman at the check out had to have said “I’m sorry” to me at least 10 times during our transaction….and for nothing important, I assure you. I told her, you didn’t do anything wrong, you’re fine, no need to be sorry. But you could tell it was just automatic for her, it flowed too easily off her tongue.

  3. When I read the BBC article some months back talking about how women in leadership positions are more likely to experience depression than men because of these disparities in how people perceive their actions, it was a huge relief. I am not crazy. This is a real, measurable phenomenon. Even if I cannot fix it, it is nice to feel validated on some level.

  4. Good job bringing these issues out, Wendy. People should apologize when they’ve done something that was in error, or caused trouble or pain for the organization or people connected with the company. Simple as that. But, oh, how it goes deeper, to how each individual was brought up and feels about themself. Yes gender, and race, and class related, but more than that, too.

  5. Very well said! I can’t see it from a woman’s point of view, but I do see it happening with others, and I’ve always been on the lookout for it with my daughters’ behavior.

    I like your suggestion to use “excuse me” instead of “I’m sorry” in a social situation where there’s a physical conflict of some sort. (Reaching for the same doughnut, getting to the door at the same time, etc.) It seems much more neutral and generic and much less judgmental, particularly when society has these ridiculous expectations that if anyone’s “sorry” it should be the woman in the situation!

    • My daughter used to say it a lot, but every time she would say it, I’d tell her you have nothing to be sorry for. And after a while, she got out of the habit and she just stopped. She says it now only when she means it (because she actually did something wrong) and says “excuse me,” or another appropriate phrase when needed for politeness or etiquette’s sake. Like you said, it’s much more generic and less judgmental turn of phrase and the idea/feeling of “not being sorry” when you’re not wrong is empowering. At least I think so. Of course it’s imperative to own up to something if you are wrong, but it’s so defeating to be sorry all of the time when you’re not doing anything wrong.

  6. So TRUE. I think another reason women apologize is to protect themselves. Apologizing can defuse violent situations and confrontations in life (with men) and that transfers to the workplace. It’s how a lot of women have stayed alive longer…by apologizing for things they didn’t do so that violent men would be pacified. Makes me want to barf but when you are physically weaker and protecting yourself/and or kids, women do what they have to do. I’ve seen women apologize and not even realize they were doing ti, it was like saying hello. It’s a way to be NON THREATENING so the men don’t get all up in your face and think there’s a war brewing because they THEY did something wrong. So while it makes women look weak I think we have to realize it has been a survival tactic and STOP DOING IT. We are more polite as well. All of this is done not only because it’s the civilized way to act, but to defuse impending violence. I think we need to let go of these rings in the work place in order to be taken seriously. Hatred, resentment and possible violence may ensue but it’s a choice between looking weak and unprofessional or doing your job.

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