My mother hates when I say, “I’m sorry.” I never used to understand that until recently. There isn’t a Portuguese equivalent with the same kind of flexibility. “Desculpe” and “com licença” is more like “excuse me,” and “perdoa-me” is a very over the top “forgive me.”
But I grew up speaking English, so I bear all the baggage that comes with it. This includes using “I’m sorry” as punctuation more than sincere sentiment is hardwired into my brain. And you know what made me stop and take notice: a vlog from Barbie.
Things we need to stop apologizing for
Okay, feminist rant time. This vlog hit me square in the feels because I regularly find myself apologizing for everything Barbie listed. From being nearly run over my scooters on the sidewalks of Downtown San Jose to fighting the urge to couch my opinions in conciliatory language if I want to be taken seriously, the Sorry Reflex is real and it is a burden.
Women, girls, femmes of all kinds: everything is not our fault, but the language we’re conditioned to use creates the illusion that it is. (Yes, I know that there are guys who also have a Sorry Reflex problem. Some of them you are even my friends. This advice is for you too, but let’s be real: you’re not nearly as burdened with these societal issues.)
Raise your hand if you’ve apologized about being excited about something. Why? What is it about having big thoughts and feelings about things that merits an apology? What are we apologizing for, taking up space? Apologizing for getting bumped into is adjacent to this.
This reflex we thought was politeness is instead a mechanism that forces us to play into the narrative that our contributions, our feelings, and we as people are lesser. A burden. An interruption.
Fuck that noise. It’s time to watch your language.
A note on “No offense, but,”
Contrast “I’m sorry” with “No offense, but” which serves as the same meaningless punctuation but actually signals that you’re about to be offensive. Unlike “I’m sorry,” I don’t tend to hear “No offense, but” from women, but from men.
Like “I’m sorry,” this an attempt to shift responsibility and blame for an emotional response that you know you’re going to elicit. Only this time, it shifts the blame away from the offender, who pretends they don’t mean offense, onto you for being offended. It’s a preemptive and even more meaningless cousin to “I’m sorry.”
I used to shrug off exchanges that started with “No offense, but.” Moving forward, I’m going to try and be mindful of them and cut them off before they get to past “but.” No, you don’t get to tell me what offends me and what doesn’t.
What I’m trying to say instead
First of all, I’m going try and cut it out of my writing and speech whenever possible. “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong,” should just be “You’re wrong and this is why.” Stand for your convictions because no one else will do it for you.
“I’m sorry you’re having a hard time,” is a version of sorry that’s been exchanged between me and my boyfriend quite a bit. While it comes from a well-intended place, it’s a case of us taking responsibility on for something that’s not our fault. “What can I do to help?” “Do you need to talk about it?” or “I’m here for you,” are all better options that offer support without shouldering the blame. (Millennials get blamed for enough shit that isn’t their fault as it is.)
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is the extended version of “I’m sorry” that my mom hates so much. I was not the easiest kid to raise sometimes. Even as I’ve grown older and more responsible, we haven’t always agreed on what is right. I’ve made choices that have hurt her, even if that wasn’t my intention. Teenage Liz (and early 20s Liz, tbh) would murmur “Sorry, Mãe,” and carry on being her headstrong self.
What I meant then, and what I am trying to be better about articulating now, is, “I’m doing what I think is right. I’m not doing it to hurt you. We’re not always going to agree, but I care about you.” When I do upset it, I take the time to examine my actions and try to change them, if I can. A true “I’m sorry,” should come with an “and I won’t do it again,” at the end of it.
However, it’s also used as the lamest non-apology in the English language. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is even worse than “No offense, but.” It’s the calling card of assholes and narcissists. It gets tossed around when people aren’t actually sorry but know that it’s expected of them to offer some form of apology.
Stop being sorry for yourself
Sometimes, punctuation is necessary. It signals what’s coming next in a sentence. “I’m sorry,” works like punctuation in that stands in for what we should be signaling, so I’m just going say what I actually mean instead of falling back on bad habits.
“I’m sorry I’m so moody today,” is something I tell my boyfriend pretty often. Am I looking for forgiveness? Validation? That kind of neediness can probably fuck off. But if I’m trying to signal that I’m grateful for his support when I’m down, that’s what I should be saying. “Thanks for being there for me while I’m coping with a bad mental health,” is far more sincere.
“Thanks for putting up with me,” however, is not a healthy alternative. (And yet I catch myself saying that all the time, too.) It does that same blame and responsibility shifting thing that “I’m sorry” does. If you treat yourself as a burden, people will eventually start treating you like one.
Meaning what you say
I’m not saying that you or anyone should eliminate, “I’m sorry,” from their vocabulary forever. Barbie had it right in her vlog. “It’s really important to be kind, and thoughtful, and polite, and to offer a sincere apology if we have done something wrong.”
If you haven’t offended, don’t apologize. Find better words. Help construct a better narrative for all of us.