“I’m so sorry,” I said to my friend, over and over, every time I put anything into my mouth or even looked at any of the food I’d spent all day preparing for a small, impromptu New Years Eve gathering. She’s a vegetarian, you see, and I’d made somewhere in the vicinity of 14,000 relatively fancy “small bites”… nearly every single one of which contained some sort of seafood. Oh, the other thing? This friend–in town for a quick visit and packing in face time with several dozen of her nearest and dearest, some of whom I’d assumed she’d be ringing in the new year with–had texted me while my little festivus was already under way, essentially inviting herself over. She’s fun and spontaneous like that. And I was thrilled to have her! And she totally understood the gastronomic situation. And was as profusely apologetic as I.
…So, why was I apologizing?
Habit, I guess. I mean, I apologized to my dog this morning when I accidentally stepped on her paw, a gesture which was likely wasted, as the only words my she seems to register are “walk” and “kibble.” I say I’m sorry when I mean “excuse me.” I say I’m sorry when I mean “What? I didn’t catch that.” I say I’m sorry when someone bumps into me. I even, on occasion, say I’m sorry when what I really mean is “Screw you.”
I suspect I am not alone. Women, after all, are notorious “hedgers.” And I wonder: when “I’m sorry” is as reflexive a verbal tic as “um,” what kind of toll does it take? Why are we so quick to cast ourselves the villains? To label ourselves “wrong?” To discount our own perspective? As though this were the proper thing to do? Sometimes an apology is warranted, of course, but when we offer one up without reason, what are we really saying? And what are we really apologizing for? Are we sorry for taking up too much space? For inconveniencing someone else? For being too something, or not something else enough? Or for being, at all?
What are we saying to the world about ourselves, and what are we saying to ourselves about ourselves? And why does it matter?
Interestingly, I got to thinking about the subject not because of the NYE non-incident, but because I was reading yet another item about the lack of women in the C-suite and the corporate inertia around making the changes that would get–and keep–us there, all despite the very real benefits gender balance in the highest ranks has been shown to offer. Caroline Turner writes in the VentureBeat piece:
Both Catalyst and the Center for Work Life Policy divide the causes of women leaving the business world into “pull factors” (like family care) and “push factors,” negative elements about the work environment or job. Two major push factors involve:
- Acceptance: Women not feeling fully valued or accepted, and
- Advancement: Women feeling they can’t advance or succeed.
There are two drivers of these feelings:
- The “comfort principle” and
- An unconscious preference for how leadership and excellence look.
…The builders of American business were primarily men. They got there first. It is natural that ideas of leadership and excellence have a more masculine than feminine flavor.
Studies show that “leadership” is associated with words that are characteristic of men more often than women. In fact, when women exhibit some of these traits, they are not favorably received. In evaluating a woman, men may find her approach unfamiliar and may judge her style rather than focus on the results she delivers.
Leaders can stop and notice whether previously unconscious preferences are influencing how they evaluate a woman. They can take the time to understand differences in masculine and feminine approaches, and the strengths and limitations of each. Then they can appreciate and value both.
Too reiterate–but not to put too fine a point on it, well, you know, as Turner writes and as we’ve been known to mention from time to time, the corporate world as it exists today was largely conceived and constructed by men. Once women got in the door, we quickly learned that we’d best play along with the boys in charge, do things their way. But that time’s come and gone–women make up half the workforce, and the world has changed. It’s our world, too, and it’s high time we stopped apologizing for our place in it and the way we see it.
Yes, the world is littered with structural inequities, biases, chauvinists and misogyny, but it’s our responsibility to speak up. When we keep quiet to keep the peace, when we apologize for who we are, we discount who we are, our perspective, our needs–all while our power to change things evaporates. And we deprive ourselves, our family, our companies and our world the perspective that is uniquely ours to offer. When instead of asking for what we want or saying that we see things a little differently, we question ourselves or keep quiet–or worse, apologize–what we’re really saying is that we don’t matter.
Does this seem like a stretch? Maybe it does. Maybe it is. But it’s my perspective, and I’m not sorry for sharing it.
But I do still feel kinda bad about the smoked salmon wontons. The fried oysters. The shrimp remoulade… Oh, who am I kidding? No I don’t.