Why do so many women say sorry when they've done nothing wrong?
Recently I found myself in a jam-packed bar in the city watching a live band. At one point, I turned to look for my friend, who I'd lost in the crowd. As I turned, I accidentally whacked the woman behind me with my bag.
I didn't whack her hard - I didn't cause any physical damage. But it was my bag and my turning that were responsible for the bag whacking.
However, before I could do a thing about it, the whacked woman herself had pulled a guilty face, patted my arm and said, 'Ooh, I'm so sorry.'
For what? She'd done nothing more than stand close to me. That hardly warrants an apology.
The word 'sorry' comes from the Old English 'sarig' which means 'distressed' or 'full of sorrow'. The modern dictionary definition is 'feeling sad, distressed or remorseful'. Surely none of these rightly describe how that woman must have felt when I whacked her.
So why did she feel compelled to take the blame? Why did she say 'I'm sorry'?
It seems that this reflex apology is largely linked to a societal perception of politeness. It's a pacifying technique to avoid further trouble or escalation.
'I'd say sorry in that situation too,' my friend said later when I told her about the bag-whacking incident. 'In a busy bar, at that time of night, I wouldn't know whether you're a peace-loving tree-hugger, or a gin-soaked, fist-fighter. It's best to assume the worst and take the lower status immediately, just in case I get punched.'
Questions about my friend's choice of drinking establishments aside, the phrase 'lower status' stands out to me. Because this is what it seems we're doing when we say, so readily and so quickly, 'I'm sorry'. We're accepting defeat, withdrawing from battle, laying ourselves down before any objection can arise. Perhaps what we're really saying is not, 'I'm sorry,' but, 'I am not willing to fight.'
According to other women I've asked, it's all about being polite. 'You just say sorry and that keeps everything calm.' Which wouldn't be so bad, if everyone was doing it. But what's noticeable about this business of knee-jerk 'I'm sorry' responses is that they're very much a feature of female sociolect. If it had been a man that I'd whacked with my bag, I don't believe 'I'm sorry' would have been his reflex response. And if the men aren't saying it, why are we?
Personally, I gave up saying sorry for things that aren't my fault a few years ago, following a retreat at the Esalen Institute in California. I spent a few weeks there and got to know a downright sassy woman called Sowaila. After a few days in her company, she lost her patience with me.
'Why the hell do you say sorry all the time?'
'No, not "sorry", dammit. Stop saying that. You've got nothing to be sorry for. It's meaningless. You should only say sorry if you've gone and done something awful.'
'Don't you dare. If you're going to say anything, say something life affirming. Say "I'm sexy" instead.'
For the rest of the week, whenever she caught me saying sorry for small stuff, my Californian friend would shoot me a look and I'd blush and mutter, 'I'm sexy'.
To be honest, that felt a bit weird. But when I complained, Sowaila just said, 'How do you think I feel when you're running around saying sorry for every damn thing?'
By the end of my stay, her training had paid off. Not only was I feeling less apologetic, I was also beginning to feel a little more ... well ... sexy.
Back in the UK I've maintained this policy of not apologizing without good reason. I don't mean for the big stuff. Of course I'll say sorry if I'm genuinely sorrowful or regretful - if I've made a mistake or if I've heard bad news that affects a friend or if I feel I could have made a better try at something.
But for other things, like being the first one through a door, or for moving someone's coat on a chair, for speaking when it isn't my proper turn, or for laughing loudly, for standing where someone else wants to stand, or for not having the right money for the train, for having fun things already scheduled in my diary, and for being whacked by someone else's bag in a bar (all of which are examples of when I've heard other women say sorry), I will not.
Perhaps it's time for all of us, men and women alike, to reassess the way we use the phrase. Wouldn't it be better to use the breath on something useful? Instead of saying sorry for things we haven't done, we could make positive comments about each other and the world. Not 'I'm sorry', but 'I love you.' Not 'I'm sorry', but 'You look great.' Not 'I'm sorry', but 'Wow, what a beautiful day.'
We could use the opportunity to state affirmations for ourselves. Not 'I'm sorry', but 'I'm talented.' Not 'I'm sorry', but 'I'm happy.' Not 'I'm sorry', but 'I'm feeling good today.' The things we say about ourselves are the things we come to believe. With a simple change of that one word 'sorry', we could change our whole day, our whole outlook on life.
I didn't mean to whack that woman in the bar with my bag. And I definitely didn't want her to feel sorrowful because of it. So as she patted my arm, I passed on Sowaila's gift.
'No, really,' I said, 'there's no need. It was definitely my fault. Don't say "I'm sorry." Say "I'm sexy" instead.'