Sorry, Not Sorry

Think about how many times you’ve asked a question in class, opening with, “Sorry, but…? Or the last time someone bumped into you. Did you apologize? If you’re anything like me, you did because you’re used to apologizing...for everything.

It’s not that I actually think I’m a total klutz, or an inconvenience, or that I mess up a lot. But most of the time, before I can even process that something wasn’t my fault, the word, “sorry,” is already spilling out of my mouth.

One of the earlier feminist linguists, Robin Lakoff, discusses in her book, Language and Woman’s Place, what she calls “women’s language.” She comments that women tend to search for approval when they speak, often use the up speak tone, and modify what they’re saying to lessen its weight.

In 2014, Pantene addressed women’s tendency to apologize unnecessarily in a video called, “Not Sorry Shinestrong Pantene.” The ad strings together clips of women apologizing for things they weren’t responsible for, and then replays the same clips, but without the women apologizing. It’s clear that the women in the second version of the clips come off as more confident and authoritative over what they’re saying. After watching both versions, it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever reduce what they’re saying to apologies and filler words.

But, according to scholar Cheris Kramarae, the reason why many women speak like this is due to limiting social foundations. Throughout her book, Women and Men Speaking, Cheris Kramarae attributes much of how women talk to the muted group theory. In Kramarae’s words, this theory essentially means that “women are not as free or as able as men are to say what they wish, when and where they wish, because the words and the norms for their use have been formulated by the dominant group, men.” Although gender roles have shifted over the years, pre-established expectations for women such as shyness and subservience continue to leak into our views of how we should speak, and how we expect other women to speak.

Despite these pre-determined expectations, I know that when I talk, I want people to believe me. I want them to think I’m bright, competent, and assertive. I want them to focus on what I’m saying, not on how often I’m saying “sorry” and using filler words. And those changes start with me. I may not be able to help the fact that people might have a different expectation when they hear me speak compared to when they hear a man speak, but I can make it my personal goal to make my speech more intentional and less apologetic so I don’t give them a reason to perpetuate that unfair expectation #sorrynotsorry.