Women apologize for everything. What happens when we stop?
When Naomi Osaka defeated Serena Williams to win the 2018 U.S. Open — becoming Japan's first ever tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament — she didn't exult. She didn't beam with joy over her history-making victory. Instead, she apologized.
"I'm so sorry it had to end like this," an emotional Osaka said to the crowd and the television cameras, referring to a match marred by controversy over a shocking row between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos. Watching Osaka wipe away tears, I felt a pang of recognition. I know what it's like to sense unhappiness around me and feel the word "sorry" rise to my lips. I, too, am an apologizer.
I'm not alone. I know so many women (and people raised as women) who rush to apologize at the slightest hint of trouble. Bump into someone on the train? "Oh, sorry!" Take too long to put your change back in your wallet at the checkout counter? "Sorry, just one more second!" Not feeling well and need to cancel plans with friends? "I am so sorry! I feel terrible about doing this!"
We say "sorry" to defuse tension, to express regret, to say thanks, to joke, to bond with each other, to try and ease pain caused by others. We apologize for our failures, and — as Osaka did — even for our successes. But what if we could let ourselves off the hook for all of that? What might that feel like?
In mid-August, I headed into the Santa Cruz mountains for a three-day "feminist summer camp" called The Compact. No cisgender men allowed. No cell phone service, Wi-Fi, or television.
For three days, presenters and attendees discussed all the ways that women are expected — from birth or even before — to serve others' needs at the expense of our own. We swapped stories of how we'd been taught to feel ashamed of our desires, to question our own instincts, to expend emotional energy on everyone else while reserving none for ourselves. And we engaged in a healthy dose of summer camp nostalgia — friendship bracelets, campfire songs, s'mores — with no omnipresent screens to remind us of everything we need to apologize for.
Almost immediately, my instinctive "sorrys" began to feel out of place. I noticed how my shoulders hunched when I felt the urge to apologize, how the pitch of my voice shot up like a child's. I realized how good it felt to simply be: to ask to heat up a meal in the kitchen microwave, to fumble the words to a camp song, to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
At the end of the retreat, I decided to try an experiment. For the next seven days, I would not let the word "sorry" escape my lips. Not once. No exceptions.
The temptation started as soon as I returned home, exhausted and dusty. I wanted to apologize to my husband for needing a shower, to my cat for being away so long, to my friends for missing a dinner party they were throwing that night. But I caught the words as they crawled into my throat, and swallowed hard. "I missed you. I'm getting in the shower. I would like to stay home tonight," I said instead.
Over the course of the next week, I caught myself wanting to apologize for being caught in traffic; for having a stomachache; for my hips being too wide to fit between tables at a restaurant; for sleeping too late; for waking up too early; for witnessing another patron in a store being snappish to a salesperson. Each time I stopped myself.
If anyone noticed, they said nothing to me. The only real difference was in how I felt: lighter, less slouched, more confident. It was as if, by apologizing for my perceived flaws, I was willing those flaws into existence. Once I stopped apologizing, I realized how utterly unremarkable it was to be hungry, to be thirsty, to be tired, to be imperfect, to be silent. I noticed my own emotional reserves filling back up, now that I was not draining them with a constant flow of apologies.
And I noticed something else, too: By using the word "sorry" so often, I'd begun to lose sense of its meaning. Most of the time, when I apologized, I was simply completing a ritual. But at one point during my week of "sorry"-detoxing, I genuinely screwed up: I said something thoughtless that hurt a friend's feelings. And I was shocked to realize that the rising apology tasted the same in my mouth, though the meaning was different.
We live in an age of insincere apologies. "Sorry" has become a reflex, a request for absolution. I had fallen right into that trap, throwing out the same frantic "sorry" no matter the gravity of the offense. And because these conversations so often ended in reassurance that I'd done nothing wrong, I'd primed myself to expect a quick and easy resolution to every single apology. But now that the word "sorry" was no longer available to me, I had to actually think about what I'd done wrong. I had to put into words what I thought the problem was, and confirm that the other person felt the same. And then I had to figure out what they needed to hear from me in order to make things right. I had to apologize, really and truly and well. And I was rusty at it.
Over the course of the week, I found myself flexing those muscles with increasing confidence. I found other ways to say what I wanted to say, and to identify when a real apology was needed. "Thank you for waiting," I said. "Excuse me," I said. "Wow, that person was rude," I said. "I didn't mean to hurt you, but I understand why you're upset; I won't do that again," I said.
By the end of the seven days, I felt no urgency to bring the word "sorry" back into my vocabulary. So I ... didn't. At least, not fully. It's been nearly two months since my experiment, and I've been working to break my "sorry" habit once and for all — to scale back my use of the word until it's both rare and deeply felt.
A lifetime of conditioning is hard to overcome. Every so often, I slip and blurt out a reflexive "sorry!" when I've done nothing wrong. But slowly, I'm finding other words, or embracing silence instead. And I'm learning to hold my apologies in reserve for when they're truly needed. In a culture that teaches women to apologize for everything — whether they have done harm or not — that feels like a quietly radical act.