The Curious Language of “I’m Sorry”

A good decade ago, a close friend of mine came over on Easter and presented me with a platter of gorgeous gourmet cupcakes and said, “I’m sorry.” I don’t remember exactly what my response was, but I’m pretty sure it was something like, “No, I’m sorry.” It got me wondering why women speak to each other, and the rest of the world, in a strange language of “I’m sorry” that makes absolutely no sense.

I started to pay attention to how often I said “I’m sorry” and how often other people did. The first thing I noticed was that, hands down, women said it a gazillion times more than men, scientifically speaking, of course. Next, I tried to parse out what women were apologizing for, and, as it turns out, it was basically for existing.  

I’m not even kidding. The most common use of “I’m sorry” was a sense that women were somehow not allowed to take up space.

Sorry that I’m standing in this spot that you might want to stand in. Sorry that I’m walking the same direction as you and didn’t anticipate the path you might take. I’m sorry I’m cold at your restaurant. I’m sorry I’m getting off the elevator. I’m sorry I’m getting on the elevator. I’m sorry I’m walking across the street. I’m sorry I’m grocery shopping at the same time as you.

It’s nutz with a z.

Here’s a good example that happened yesterday. Yesterday! There was a couple a bit ahead of us entering Crate and Barrel. The woman turned to us as she was opening the door and said, “I’m sorry,” to which I replied, “Sorry.” The men said nothing, because they are freakin’ sane and understand they are allowed to take up space. When I broke this I’m sorry exchange down, it seemed she was sorry that she didn’t open the door fast enough, and I was sorry that I was behind her going into the same store. 

What in the hell? How am I still so bad at this???

Another example of me doing this crazy thing that I’ve been actively working on changing for over a decade happened the other day at the grocery store. A man was looking at ice cream and blocking several freezer doors. I scoped out what I needed and when realized it was in the freezer door next to his cart, I reached in to grab with what can only be described as a wildly unnecessary “I’m sorry.” Why was I sorry?? The man looked at me as if I might be unwell, and, yeah well, he might be right! 

Now, before anyone reading this starts to think I’m against polite society, or is thinking women are polite to say sorry all the time and men are a bunch of jerks, let me say this….NO! The men are right. They understand that existing and taking up space is not a reason to apologize. And women, listen up, we need to be more like this!

Take for example the seemingly innocuous act of crossing a street or parking lot. When a car stops to let pedestrians cross, women tend to wave in gratitude and pick up their pace, sometimes even breaking out into a jog as an apology for the audacity of walking, promising to get out of the way quickly! Men? They simply walk. 

Now, I’m not an anthropologist. Truth is that I took one anthropology class in college, and, perhaps smartly, deemed the entire subject of studying human societies far too complex and overwhelming for me. But it doesn’t take the rocket scientist equivalent in the anthropology world to figure out that it makes sense that women are like this. For most of the history of the world we’ve been told to shut up and sit down, and that was a good day for us. To avoid being violently abused or ridiculed by men, we tried to make ourselves as small and quiet as possible, and I’m here to say that shit sticks. Women are still subconsciously sorry for simply being. 

Maybe this is resonating with you, maybe you think I’m crazy. Either way, start to pay attention. I promise you’ll be shocked at what you hear yourself apologize for. A few weeks ago, I was shopping with my daughter at American Eagle and while she was trying things on I was sitting outside the fitting rooms being serenaded by a symphony of I’m sorries. What were the young women sorry for? Let’s see…

Wanting to try on clothes at a clothing store that offers that option in hopes of selling clothes. Needing the dressing room to be unlocked when the store keeps them locked. Going to get themselves another size, but getting locked out of their dressing room and needing the door opened. It finally said something. I confessed by own proclivity to apologize, but reminded myself and them that we are allowed to ask for a dressing room without apology. It only requires a thank you once it’s done.  

At this point, women use “I’m sorry” for just about everything and we don’t even notice it. To get someone’s attention, to ask a question, to request help, the list goes on and on. But words matter. “I’m sorry” is a big deal. It carries with it an element of remorse for hurting someone intentionally or unintentionally. There’s no need to bring that weight into these interactions with strangers…unless you accidentally ram someone’s ankles with your shopping cart…then, be sorry. 

There’s an old expression to “stuff your sorries in a sack.” I think it means that if you find yourself constantly apologizing, maybe instead, clean up your act, be a better a person so you won’t need to say sorry so much. In this case, I’d like to bring back this express to tell women to stuff your unnecessary sorries in a sack, and instead remember to hold your power in the world by not apologizing for taking up space. And never, and I mean never, apologize for bringing cupcakes. 


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