Emily Postmodern: Ladies, Stop Apologizing For Your Existence

It’s never easy to disappoint someone. It’s never fun to make a choice to further your own personal and professional goals while intentionally inconveniencing someone else. But this feeling of unintentional disappointment happens all the time. It seems like, at some point in our socialization, women in particular are taught that we need to apologize for simply asking to occupy public space or articulate our expertise. We live in a “Sorry!” culture, a point that was hilariously parodied by general badass Amy Schumer.

A well-mannered young lady definitely wants to deliver a genuine apology with grace when it’s called for. But, the weight of the mea culpa is undermined when one is constantly asking for forgiveness for everything else. Social norms and language change over time. A 19th century “I beg your pardon” carries a different weight than our 21st century #sorrynotsorry, but is it wrong to ask ourselves why we still feel compelled to feel bad even for feeling bad?

The life coach that is the internet will give you plenty of conflicting advice about what and when you should and shouldn’t  issue an apology for, as a woman or just a general person. When recently discussing this with a friend, she asserted that apologies are too personal of a subject to have any strict rules about, but when someone feels sorry they should articulate it. Without being one of those people policing how young women speak, I think it’s important to question why we lead with “I’m sorry” when we really mean “I’m talking right now,” or “Not to interrupt.”

Obviously, when your actions offend or harm someone, you want to let them know it was unintentional, and apologize. Instead of rehashing the laundry list of times you shouldn’t apologize, let’s go over when you should deliver a sincere apology that actually means something.

When you’ve made a mistake.

In work or life, admitting responsibility for your foibles will go a long away. Don’t drag it out and continue to bring attention to your slip-up with repetitive apologies and self-deprecating language like, “I can’t ever do anything right” or “I’m so bad”. Insisiting that you’re sorry can make it seem like you actually aren’t.

When you’re asking asking someone to go out of their way to accommodate you.

We mean if they’re actually going out of their way, not just doing their job. If you get the wrong order at a restaurant you shouldn’t feel compelled to apologize profusely for pointing it out and requesting the correct order. But if you change your mind after you have already ordered or ask for something off-menu at a restaurant that specifies ‘no substitutions’ you should lead with ‘I’m sorry to ask but…’. If it can’t happen don’t take it personally and if they managed to finagle your request don’t forget to be grateful.

When someone experiences a loss.

Remember, I’m sorry can also mean “I have sorrow.” Letting someone know that you share in the sorrow of their loss can ease some of their burden.

When you accidentally bump into someone on the subway/sidewalk, etc.

It happens to all of us. The subway comes to an unexpected stop and the next thing you know, you’re on top of the person next to you. Take your earbuds out and look up from that game of Candy Crush for five second, say you’re sorry and you have improved someone else’s lousy commute.

When you have to break a commitment.

You said you would do something and now you can’t. Don’t put off saying no because you don’t want to disappoint someone. Give them proper notice so they have time to come up with another plan.

When you say something rude.

We have all experienced verbal diarrhea, owning up to it and apologizing helps your brain remember not to use that dated colloquialism again.

When your actions have actually hurt someone.

Sometimes we do things that hurt other people. In hindsight we know better, but they happen. The ability to take responsibility for selfish choices is part of becoming a GROWN ASS LADY, but after the fact their is nothing you can do except apologize, move forward, and let that experience inform the choice you make in the future.

On the flip side, when you let someone know they hurt your feelings, and they apologize for it, continuing to lecture them on their lack of tact is only going to make you look tactless. Accept the apology gracefully and move on. You should be secure in your choice to stand up for yourself and your feelings. Insisting that you are in the right and not listening and receiving to the apology given just undermines your own feelings. While you are completely in the right to assert yourself and your emotions, insisting on telling someone about how insensitive they are AFTER they have said ”I’m sorry” is detrimental to everyone involved. Just because you had the last word doesn’t make you the winner. Accept the apology with more grace than it was delivered and everyone will remember you as the one with tact.

As I’ve said before, etiquette is about respect. Use the words that come out of your mouth to show someone you respect their humanity and your own.

Julianna Rose Dow is a thank-you note enthusiast working in higher-ed communications and marketing in NYC. She likes puns, telling people what to wear and baking with bourbon. Got a burning etiquette question? Drop her a line here.