I quit the “I’m Sorry” club.
I stopped saying those words when I noticed that my daughters followed my lead in becoming prolific apologists. My youngest daughter, who is the strongest and most confident female I know, woke me to my bad habit. Maya has issues around anxiety when she thinks she’s in trouble. Because of this fear, she apologizes profusely, for anything. As I began working with her to use different language that didn’t minimize her confidence, I realized that she learned that bad habit from me. That realization was a shock to my system.
I explored why the words "I’m sorry" showed up in my life as the beginning to any sentence where I had to show confidence or strength. As I began my examination, I realized that most women I came into contact with used the same phrase.
In the restaurant, “I’m sorry, can I get some more napkins.”
At work, “I’m sorry, do you think I can get Christmas Eve off this year?”
On the street, “I’m sorry, do you know how to get to 6th street?”
Everywhere I went, women used the phrase to apologize for speaking up, asking for something, or making an honest mistake. Then I started listening for the men to say it. Surely this was some American colloquialism. Yet, when I waited for men to say those words, the world became quieter. It appeared that in the land of the free, only women uttered "I'm Sorry" frequently. That is when I decided to take a stand. I would no longer use those two words outside of their intended context. I also resolved to teach my daughters a different way to engage with the world. They would not be apologists, they would be participants. They would learn precise language to convey their beliefs, desires, and power.
Why Do Women Apologize for Everything?
The definition of sorry is: feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence. Sorry can also mean pity, scorn, or ridicule. When I read that definition, my mind immediately went into overdrive. I absolutely had to get this phrase out of my regular conversations.
Before I began my journey to eliminate I’m sorry, I had to get in touch with why I was a gold medal apologist. I discovered quickly that my size, my voice, my carriage, and my ethnicity intimidated people everywhere I went. As an African-American woman who stands at 6’1” with a strong build and voice, I have always had to make myself smaller to engage safely with others. In many of my feedback sessions at work, the words intimidating and unapproachable were used to describe me. As a result, I felt the need to make myself smaller to be acceptable to men and women.
Becoming small in the world was never more necessary than when dealing with men. There were many times where I stood eye to eye with a senior executive man. There were other times where I towered over them. I remember one time in particular. I hunched my shoulders down and bent my knees when a certain executive visited my store. He was around 5’6”. He seemed to delight in demonstrating his power over me when he spoke to me. I noticed that when I made myself smaller and deferred to him, he treated me better.
How many of us women can identify with this?
After years of hearing how intimidating I was at work, I adapted my style to begin sentences with “I’m sorry” when I disagreed with a point being made. I also used those words when I thought that someone would be upset at a mistake I made. Using those words seemed to make the situation better and the person I spoke those words to would walk away, retaining their power in the situation. I was giving my power away to make people “like” me.
When I discovered this, I felt inauthentic. I had to figure out a way to engage with others, including other women, without diminishing myself.
The Moment of Truth – It Did Not Go Well
A few years ago, I participated in a project a work that reorganized a portion of our office into a different structure. My team spearheaded the project with the support and agreement of other division leaders. Nothing went forward without the explicit participation and approval of our senior leaders. However, when the morale in the office dipped with an important group of stakeholders, the finger pointing began in earnest. Most of those fingers were pointed towards me. Although I was not the leader of this effort, the belief among this male constituency was that this was my problem.
As I sat in a strategy meeting to address the ongoing problem, one of the men in the room began discussing the upcoming officewide meeting like this:
“Stephanie will start the meeting by apologizing for the mistakes made during the implementation of the new structure.”
I was incredulous. I spoke up immediately. I explained that I was not going to go up to the front of any gathering of our office and apologize. I didn’t feel that apologies were necessary. My position was that we all participated in taking this risk and it didn’t work out the way we wanted. We were fixing the issues. My thought was that if we start supporting public apologies for things not working out the way we planned, no one would take a risk.
The room was silent. The saddest part of this meeting was that the other women in the room did not support me. A debate ensued about my need to apologize. The meeting ended unresolved. I was angry.
I then made a crucial misstep. I called a man to help me figure it out. His advice, “how much will you lose if you don’t apologize?” The answer was “a lot”. If I didn’t apologize, I would be seen as not taking responsibility. I wanted to avoid the discomfort I felt when my career derailed years earlier. I took the easy way out. I was a coward.
I stood up the next day, in front of a room of 150 people and apologized for the mistakes made in the implementation. The other leaders, all men, stood up to address the solutions. Not a single one apologized. They admitted to making mistakes. They promised to change things for the better. But not once did they apologize. I felt embarrassed and diminished.
Several women came up to me afterwards, angry. They felt that I had no reason to apologize and were insulted that I was made to stand there in front of the group and utter the phrase. I resolved in that moment that I would never again put myself in that position, no matter what the situation.
It took me a while to figure out how to eliminate “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary, but I did – thanks to my daughters.
Watch Your Language
To make a change in your life, you have to first figure out which direction you want to move. When I decided to remove “I’m Sorry” from my language, I had to figure out what words would replace it. My aha moment came from my efforts to eliminate apologies from my daughters’ language. I realized that “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean “I take responsibility”. It means don’t be angry with me.
Once I realized that accountability was a part of learning the right language, replacing the words became quite easy.
When Erin or Maya do something that they should not have and they are reprimanded, they now say “I understand Mommy. I won’t do that again.”
If they accidentally run into someone while playing, they say “I didn’t see you there. Are you okay? Can I help you?”
If they spill something on the floor, they will say “I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. I need help cleaning this up.”
There are numerous situations where together we are learning the right language.
We also learned together that there are times when I’m sorry is appropriate. We can use those words when we hurt someone and need to make amends. Those two words should be followed up with some accountability to righting your wrong.
I shared my feelings around changing the language in our home to eliminate “I’m Sorry” from our regular interactions. My husband, Russell, wholeheartedly agreed. I smile now when I hear him tell our girls, “don’t say I’m sorry. Remember we don’t use those words unless they are necessary.”
Today I was coming out of a women’s restroom at church and almost collided with another woman. As we both moved to the side, instead of smiling and laughing at our near miss, she shrunk her shoulders, looked to the ground and said “I’m sorry”. My heart broke. What a miss at the chance to look at each other and share a moment of laughter. I realized that this has nothing to do with men, or business, or power. The words are about making ourselves, as women, smaller in the world.
I looked to my daughter Erin and said “that made me sad. She didn’t need to apologize.” Erin nodded her head and said “I know Mommy. We have a lot of work to do.”
Yes, we do. The next time you are standing next to another woman and hear her apologizing without cause, gently remind her of her worth. I know that I am going to softly start doing that with other women.
We don’t have to be small to be heard. We don’t have to apologize for having a voice. We don’t have to take on the burdens of others to be worth something. We don’t have to be sorry for things that almost happened.
We will stand strong in our convictions, our voice, and our courage. We will take a moment to share a laugh about accidental bumps or silly mistakes. We will take the time to listen and understand each other without minimizing our beliefs or those of others.
I hope more women will join me in saying goodbye to "I'm Sorry."
Stephanie Walton is a business leader and coach and the author of Succeeding with Passion: Simple Strategies to Drive Your Life, Relationships, and Career Forward. Visit her at www.SucceedingWithPassion.com.
You can purchase her book in hardcover on her website. Ebooks can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks.