What To Make Of A Woman Apologizing For Herself

I have died a little, several times, hearing a smart woman apologize for sharing her opinion. Throw me six feet under so long as you’ll send a hot vampire who cares about feminism.

It’s not just “I’m sorry, but,” at the beginning of a sentence. These apologies also show up mid-conversation stream as “I’m rambling, and I’m not making any sense” even though no one has said so. They often masquerade as hierarchal concerns, such as “I’m just an intern, but,” or “I’m new here, but,” or “I’m young, but.”

I do and have done all these things, too, so don’t think I’m judging you if you relate as a speaker. The fact is that our culture clearly communicates that women will be better liked and more likely to get ahead if we downplay our abilities but have confidence in ourselves. That’s contradictory by design, because in this framework no one can win. You’re supposed to like yourself but not too much. However that works.

It is somewhat fashionable, in some circles, to tell women to stop apologizing for ourselves so that we can get ahead. There are many problems with this approach.

It’s an utterly false premise that we can self-help our way out of gender discrimination. That’s not to say that we can’t resolve gender discrimination, because through cultural and political action we as women (and men and girls and boys) absolutely can. But picking apart women’s personal lives and offering to-do lists for personal success is neither a recipe for equality and justice, nor a feminist practice in general.

Moreover, telling an apologizing woman that she has nothing to apologize for actually creates an almost real reason for an apology! Because what we need to examine is not the psyche of the woman who uses this common gendered speech mechanism, but rather where it fits into an overall pattern of expected behavior.

Women tend to be expected to build consensus, take the needs of others into account. and work to make those around them feel comfortable. These behaviors aren’t necessarily bad, and can actually be strong leadership qualities when chosen and practiced in context, but it’s confining and discriminatory as a general matter to expect women to be oriented toward and accountable to the group.

Perhaps what we most need to question is the assumption that it’s okay to tell women what to do.

Finally, the biggest problem with telling women not to apologize for ourselves is that it doesn’t examine the root cause of why a woman feels she needs to apologize for herself at a particular moment in her life.

It may well be the case that she is surrounded by people who discount her opinion. In that case, the real problem is not a pattern of speech but that those people surrounding her are horrible and not in any way conducive to growth and development. People who discount you are horrible bosses, lovers, partners, friends, and members of your network, and the solution is to find a way to remove them from your life, even if that takes time and planning (apology optional).

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, true, but the proper piece of consent to remove is their influence rather than your coping behaviors.

This essay was inspired by my tendency to challenge those younger women who through conversation show me a tendency to preface their brilliant ideas and opinions with apologies for their lack of experience. I have multiple times told them that by virtue of being in a meeting or in a room, they belong, and I still believe that. We are never “just interns” or “just new,” we are human beings.

But the overall situation is more complex.

16 thoughts on “What To Make Of A Woman Apologizing For Herself

  1. I have been thinking about this type of thing a lot recently, specifically the way we women communicate ourselves in the workplace. I have noticed that even in emails we womenfolk tend to sugar coat EVERYTHING – all emails end in “Thanks!” even when there was nothing to be thanked, or a simple request comes with a “Sorry for the inconvenience.” What I find most disturbing aside from the never ending apology that you address here, is the shift in tone when I hear other women in the office talking to men. One offender uses baby talk – BABY TALK – to address men in this very professional environment, and the people that do this are actually in upper level positions. A subconscious apology for being in power? (Let’s hope it’s subconscious anyway!)

  2. Good post. But I think people can and do make us feel inferior without our consent. It happens through the nonstop assault of messages that we are, in fact, inferior–that we shouldn’t be so pushy, so loud, so overwhelming, so [fill in the blank]. And in a hundred other ways, large and small, subtle and obvious. It seeps into our pores, and it colonizes our thoughts and our bodies. Without our consent. We can fight it, and we do, but please, folks, let’s not take responsibility for the negative messages we’ve taken on. Take responsibility for fighting them, yes, but not for the fact that they still surface in ourselves.

  3. Great insights.. and I agree.. none of us have any idea the specifics of each woman’s life in each moment. What may seem like empowered advice may be actually the opposite. I don’t believe empowered behavior can be listed – one woman’s empowered action in one moment would be disempowering for another.

  4. Andrew Cinko

    Reblogged this on You Didn't Ask, But I'll Answer and commented:
    Cameron Campbell understands her plight. Cameron Campbell fights for the right to say “I’m not sorry.” Cameron Campbell recognizes that as man, he no good at stuff. Cameron weak, make woman weak to strengthen. That make Cameron look weaker.
    Now if only I believed that! But as a man, it’s my duty to fight everything in this article. I can’t help it, my penis compels me to argue.
    Your masochistic pig,
    Cameron Campbell

  5. Lydia

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve just recently posted my opinion on the page 3 campaign in Britain on my blog, and why I don’t agree with it. I tend to find women seem scared of sharing their views constantly, just in case they offend someone! No! If you feel strongly about something regardless of whether your opinion is controversial, you should express that opinion. Unless of course you deliberately set out to be immoral and malicious, but that is an extreme that most people’s opinions are not. Political correctness has gone too far, and it’s about time strong women take the reigns and actually cause political as well as social change.

  6. Reblogged this on purpose driven living and commented:
    For me, this piece is a foundation for my own space to speak. It’s important, in expressing my thoughts, ideas and opinions, to feel that they are valid. It also brings up an issue that is important for me as a coach and educator, as I struggle to find the right approach to encourage and support the many young women I see apologizing for themselves. The issue certainly is complex, but the more we talk about it, unapologetically, the closer we’ll be to building a solution.

Leave a Reply to Mr. Militant Negro Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s