The New S-Word

Suddenly, I’m starting to hear the S-word everywhere.

It’s ok kids – this one is PG. I’m not talking about the S-word that stands in to mean stuff or excrement or bad (oh, if only all words were as versatile as the forbidden ones), I’m talking about the word sorry.

Sorry has quickly become the word we use for most human interaction, and, like literally, it has literally become divorced from its actual meaning (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Pass someone in the grocery aisle? “Sorry”. Want to ask a question? “Sorry, where’s the restroom?” Didn’t hear what someone said? “Sorry, could you repeat that?” Make eye contact with a passerby on the street? “Sorry.” Want a spot at the bar? “Sorry, are these seats taken?” Sorry has become a seemingly polite prefix stuck on the beginning of the vast majority of sentences we utter to strangers. Or professional colleagues. Or close friends. Or anyone at all. And it’s a problem. 

Why? How? Sorry is just meant as a polite acknowledgement that we are affecting someone else, by requesting an answer from them, or standing near them, for example. How could that ever be a problem?

If you believe the words we choose matter, sorry is a problem.

Sorry’s actual meaning indicates an apology when we’ve done something wrong, or when we would like to ask forgiveness. We all learned to “say sorry” when we were younger and tripped another kid accidentally-on-purpose on the playground. We all apologize – using the words “I’m sorry” – when we’ve truly hurt someone. That is where sorry definitionally belongs. We’ve introduced a word that indicates an admission of wrong-doing, an expression of guilt, and a request for forgiveness, into our everyday interactions with other, and we use it in situations which don’t in the slightest require guilt or forgiveness. As it turns out, also being in the grocery aisle doesn’t require an apology.

Using sorry in these myriad banal contexts, whether we notice it or not, subtly reinforces the notion that we are constantly doing the wrong thing, constantly imposing on others, and constantly need to apologize for our very presence.

And for those of you following along at home, this attitude is distressingly similar to the one women are otherwise culturally conditioned to accept. In countless small and large ways, we are told our thoughts don’t matter, that we don’t deserve to voice them, and – often literally – that we take up too much space. So while the use of a single, small word of politesse may not seem like much, it becomes so much more when it reinforces a toxic self-image that already exists for many women and girls.

Imagine this situation: A young woman is walking down the sidewalk. Another person is walking towards her. Each will have to turn slightly sideways to shimmy by on the narrow path. As they pass each other, the young woman smiles sheepishly and says “Sorry.”

Sorry…for what? For existing in public? For taking up space on the sidewalk? For not having leapt off the sidewalk in order to give the other person – who of course deserves it more than she – right of way?

Or imagine a classroom reviewing Hamlet. The teacher calls on a young woman with her hand tentatively raised. She asks, “Sorry, I must just not be getting this, but, why is Hamlet pretending to be mad?”

Sorry…that she didn’t fully understand one of the more complicated points in one of the most complex texts in English literature? Sorry she used her voice in public? Sorry she imposed upon the time and minds of others by asking a question?

It would of course be ludicrous to suggest that so small a word in so normal a context is any basis for the huge swaths of our culture that discount and dismiss women and female voices. However, it may be one small expression of them. Given the miasma of ways in which women are made to feel as though we ought to apologize for existing, each time we say sorry in a context that requires no apologies, it’s as though we are committing a microagression against ourselves. We are subtly but surely reinforcing that in fact we ought not to be asking a question, we ought not to be taking up space, we ought not be daring to look another person in the eye.

So ladies, please, let’s stop. Let’s stop saying sorry before our questions. Stop saying sorry when we pass someone. Stop saying sorry when we need someone’s attention. If we want to live in a world where our voices are counted, we need to be the first ones to count them.

If you absolutely must use a politesse, excuse me will do just fine, and doesn’t imply you don’t deserve what you’re asking for. Besides, you wouldn’t use the other S-word to be polite, so let’s try to get away from this one.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I actually got this talk from my manager at work — we’ve apparently been apologizing “too much” to our customers because, in his words “We’re making them a great product that will take a few minutes to cook. We shouldn’t be sorry about that.”

    Here’s the catch — my boss (and myself) are privileged, upper-class, white folk. Everyone else where I work — and, presumably, many others reading this post — are women of color, trans*, non-gender-conforming, lower-class, or somewhere else on the social ladder that are NOT as privileged. And, I’ve come to discover, when you are lower on the ladder and see someone — ANYONE — who MIGHT (not even definitely are, just MIGHT) be higher up than you, you DO NOT WANT THEM TO GET MAD AT YOU. For ANY slight, perceived or otherwise. You put yourself in harm’s way — it’s DANGEROUS — to even risk incurring the wrath of someone higher up than you.

    That’s something a lot of folks who are not on the privileged end of the ladder have learned and internalized. So, “Sorry” is actually very much a defense. Before women — of any color, class, income-status, gender-indentity, or any thing — can stop apologizing for anything, we first need a society where all persons can feel SAFE not having to apologize. Good luck.

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