After I drop my daughter off at school, I like to come home, turn on one of the morning shows and get my day rolling. So I often catch maybe 70% of a story as I pass by the television with a basket of laundry or as I’m taking out the trash. One day a while back I heard the hosts of a show talking about an ad done by Pantene about how often women apologize when they have nothing to apologize for. A woman in a meeting, for example, says “sorry, can I ask a stupid question” instead of saying “I have a question, can we…” Again, I caught maybe half of this discussion and filed it away. It must have planted a seed, however, because since then I keep thinking about this notion and it has started speaking to me louder and louder, especially as I related it to my teenage daughter.
I thought the ad and the idea of women over-apologizing was interesting and important, but somehow I didn’t personalize the message. I am a fairly quiet and reserved person, but no one would ever accuse me of being a doormat. I was thinking of this concept in terms of professional women, and I’m not in the corporate world, so I guess I didn’t fully embrace it. But I started to hear myself in everyday conversations. We had work done on our home, and I heard myself say to the contractor “I’m sorry, this doesn’t look right, I hate to ask you to look again, but would you mind?” I realized my husband would never do this. He would say “hey man, I need you to look at this because it’s not right.”
And so began the awareness that I apologize more than I should for things that I shouldn’t be apologizing for. To my doctor’s office: “I’m so sorry to bug you, but no one ever called me back about my test results, could I maybe get that information?” To the lady at the PTA meeting: “I hate to be a pest, but I actually wasn’t done talking- sorry! Do you mind if I finish?” To the receptionist at the salon: “I’m so sorry, I’m not sure if you’ve seen me waiting (oh, I know she saw me), but I’ve been here 15 minutes – I wanted to make sure I got checked in.” Suddenly I feel like the least assertive woman on the planet.
This is the premise of the ad and discussion that I saw; that as women, we need to stop apologizing for things that don’t deserve an apology! And I get it and agree. But now I’m thinking about how this behavior affects our tweens and teens. What have I been teaching my daughter when I do this? In thinking this over, I’ve come up with the do’s and don’t of apologizing for both moms and tweens and teens.
Do be aware of how often you are apologizing. In psychology, there is a concept that basically asserts that awareness leads to change. Sometimes just setting your intention on becoming aware of how often you apologize and in what situations will tell you a lot. And try to pay attention to this in your daughter, and even other women and girls in your life.
Don’t apologize when you have done nothing wrong or when doing so implies an apology for your very existence. For moms, this probably looks like the examples I gave for myself. If you are paying for a service, don’t apologize when it is done improperly. If you are part of a discussion, don’t apologize for having a voice and expecting to be heard. For tweens and teens, this can look like not apologizing for needing a teacher’s time or coach’s assistance, or not apologizing for expecting fair treatment from peers or for defending herself or someone else.
And as far as apologizing for even being in the room, this is a big one to teach our daughters! Have you ever gone into a conference room or board room and there is little space left at the table? How many women have either just gone to the edges of the room, or when needing to get a spot, apologized and asked if it was okay if they squeezed in. Compare this to walking up to the table and saying “I am excited about this information/discussion and hope to get a lot out of it – it looks like my chair fits right in here. Thanks for making room, can’t wait to get rolling!”
For girls, not apologizing for being in the room can take the form of their role in a group project. If she is assigned a project and put in a group, and the group looks as if they are trying to close ranks without her, instead of saying “sorry, the teacher put me in this group,” she needs to practice saying “you guys can totally count on me to do my part in this project, has anything been decided yet?” Or with friends, if she walks up to her group and they suddenly look guilty and stop talking, she should not apologize for interrupting. Her response to this situation depends a lot on her personality – maybe she’s comfortable saying “I hope you guys weren’t talking crap about me behind my back,” or maybe she’s more of a “hi guys, what’s up?” kind of girl.
Do apologize when you have actually done something wrong. For moms, this often comes in the form of apologizing for flaking out on an event or obligation, snapping at husband or kids, or simply making a mistake. For tweens and teens, this often looks like apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings, doing something she shouldn’t have, or not giving a full effort for an obligation. I certainly don’t need to give you examples of things to apologize for, I just want to make sure we all remember that there are indeed things that warrant an apology.
Don’t take this concept over-the-top. I was behind a woman in the return line at a department store a few weeks ago. She was very aggressive and angry about whatever retail wrong had happened to her. There was some back and forth about what she could return, or why her refund would be this or that. The clerk, trying to calm her down, said something like “I understand your frustration and totally get why you are upset…” to which she almost yelled “I don’t need your permission to be angry!” Okay, wow. I totally get being frustrated and losing our cool sometimes. But not realizing that the other person in these situations is simply trying to de-escalate a situation and even empathize with us is just obtuse, and her reply was rude.
So while I advocate for women and girls making sure we don’t acquiesce and become submissive in certain situations, I don’t advocate being so bra-burning and the-world-is-out-to-get-us that we lose all perspective and measure of human decency. All I’m saying here is use some judgment. If you are a chronic apologizer, this may take some practice to keep the pendulum from swinging too far in either direction. If I’m entering a door at the same time as someone else and it’s a clumsy entrance where neither of us knows who should go first, I might absent-mindedly say sorry. This does not make me a doormat, I’m just being polite and trying to move past an awkward moment.
I may not need to do a complete 180 when it comes to my assertiveness in the world. But I do need to be aware of what my daughter is learning for me. When she was about 10, we had some cement work done in our backyard. I was the one who was dealing with the landscape company. When the manager of this company said the work was finished, I went out and realized they had not only failed to fix the problem, it looked like they made it worse. He was insistent that it was fine and asking for payment. We began to argue about it, and I was quite vocal about what was done wrong and why I could not pay at this point. After a few minutes, I heard my daughter on the phone calling her dad, and saying “you should come home, mom’s yelling at the lawn guy.” I realized that she was surprised to hear me raise my voice at someone, and also that she wasn’t convinced that I could handle this on my own. So when mom speaks up, it’s worth a phone call to dad. When dad speaks up, it’s… well, Tuesday. I’m not saying I need to start yelling at people, I’m just making the point that even though I feel assertive, I somehow come off to her as not able to be assertive enough when needed.
We could make a long list of examples worthy of apologies and those not, and probably some which are in the middle and could stir up a debate. I think the bottom line is that we need to be okay ‘owning’ our place in the world. And when the pride, dignity, money, or self-esteem we have worked so hard for is at stake, we should never apologize for working to keep or reclaim it.
I would love to hear examples of this in your life. I’m sorry if it’s a lot to ask. Kidding! I really would love to hear your examples and experiences, I’m just not sorry to be asking!!