Thursday, March 15, 2007

Who's Sorry Now

Women (especially white ones, I've noticed) are constantly apologizing for themselves. We apologize whether or not we've done something wrong; sometimes even when we haven't had anything to do with whatever it is we're apologizing for. Everything is somehow our fault--or at least we feel it is. It's our responsibility to make everyone happy; we're to blame if they're not, no matter the reason.

We're also sorry for our opinions, and sorry for not being qualified to voice them. Because, of course, we're never smart enough, or accomplished enough, or important enough. Or pretty enough, or thin enough; or have big enough breasts, or slim enough hips, or small enough nose, or full enough lips. Or, or, or...

Basically, we're sorry for simply existing and taking up space. (Were women just as sorry a century or two ago, when their voluminous hoopskirts and enormous hats took up much more space?)

Two women I know--one a nice Southern Methodist girl who helms a prestigious cultural organization, the other a nice New York Jewish girl with a PhD and daunting CV--pepper their conversations with so many apologies that it gets to be annoying. Or funny.

Several times, I've told each of them to stop apologizing so much. Their response: "I'm sorry."

We were on a committee together, where most of their statements were prefaced with, "I'm sorry." Their one-on-one conversations took twice as long as necessary because they constantly interrupted each other to apologize. I wish I'd kept count of how many times each said "sorry"; I could have sent the tally to Guiness for the record book.

In my Book Promotion 101 workshops and consulting practice, I've noticed that women are constantly apologizing: for being inexperienced at publicity, for not writing the "right" kind of book, for reading poorly aloud, etc. One author--an excellent writer, tall, gorgeous, naturally blonde and pencil-slim (with year-old twins!)--apologized because her first novel, a futuristic urban fantasy, wasn't "literary."

I said to her and the class, "Don't apologize for your work. You write the book you need to write, the only way you know how. If you could write a 'literary' novel, you would."

I've been mulling over all this for the past couple of months, but my thoughts were crystallized this morning by a piece I read in the NY Times: Stop the Presses, Boys! Women Claim Space on Op-Ed Pages. The article focuses on author Catherine Orenstein, who leads workshops that train women to write opinion essays.

Of the next four women who spoke, three started with a qualification or apology. “I’m really too young to be an expert in anything,” said Caitlin Petre, 23.

“Let’s stop,” Ms. Orenstein said. “It happens in every single session I do with women, and it’s never happened with men.” Women tend to back away from “what we know and why we know it,” she said.

Next she asked the participants why they thought it important to write op-ed articles....She then proceeded to create ... [a] list that included fame, money, offers of books, television series and jobs.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, an Episcopal priest and the executive director of Political Research Associates in Boston, frowned. “It’s not why I do it,” she said.

That, Ms. Orenstein declared, is a typically female response: “I never had a man say, ‘That’s not why I do it.’ ”

“What I want to suggest to you,” she continued, is that the personal and the public interests are not at odds, and “the belief that they are mutually exclusive has kept women out of power.” Don’t you want money, credibility, access to aid in your cause? she asked.

Cristina Page, a spokeswoman for Birth Control Watch in Washington, leaned forward. “I’ve never heard anyone say that before,” she said. “What you’ve just said is so important. It’s liberating.”


It's time for women to channel Benjamin Disraeli:
"Never apologize, never explain."
And Erich Segal, with an important revision:
Having XX chromosomes means never having to say you're sorry.


Katharine said...

Bella, excellent post! I'm sending a link to it to three editing-related e-mail discussion lists because I think a lot of freelance editorial professionals, many of whom are women, give away their power.

Bella Stander said...

Thanks, Katharine! Link away. This is an issue that touches all women, but especially professionals.

Dick Margulis said...

Thanks to Katharine for pointing me to your post. It's dead on. As a man, I've long noticed this among women I know and wondered about it. But when I question it, the response always begins with "I'm sorry." I thank you (and Ms. Orenstein) for raising it. Maybe in a couple more generations, the phenomenon will start to fade away.

Jill said...

Yes, thanks to Katherine for passing this on, and to you, Bella, for a valuable post. I've sent a link to my seventeen-year-old daughter, who tries excessively hard to please and apologizes to table legs if she bumps into them. (Actually, I seem to recall it was I who did that, and thus became aware of the problem.) So of course I try to correct it in her. Mea culpa! No, sorry, mea maxima culpa!

Karen said...

I disagree. I know far more assertive women than nonassertive women. I fall into the category of matter-of-fact, brutally honest, no-codding-here assertive women. Which frequently gets me labelled as rude. On the other hand, having lived many years in the South, I know several soft-spoken, incredibly polite women who might lull you into thinking they aren't assertive, but you wouldn't make that mistake twice. I would argue that assertiveness, as with so many things, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder (listener). If you are raised in a culture where it is acceptable to talk over other people, you won't say "sorry" before doing so. But if you're raised in a culture where above all you are to be polite, "sorry" doesn't mean "I'm sorry for having an opinion" it might mean "excuse me, but I'm going to interrupt now." And let's face it, anytime you interrupt someone, you're asserting yourself.

Bella Stander said...

The women I'm discussing don't just apologize for interrupting (which I do all the time, having grown up mostly in NY), they preface many of their comments and opinions with "Sorry." And they often disparage their qualifications to make those comments or have those opinions. Men don't do that.

Kim Stagliano said...

Hello and thanks for dropping by my blog! That mutual friend is a great lady. And that you had lunch with Eric last week is just too coincidental! Adore is too weak to describe how I feel about his talent, eye, patience and professionalism. So glad I met him at Backspace!

I am learning to NOT apologize left and right for myself. My precious girls have taught me that lesson.


Pamela K Taylor said...

Wonderful post! I think women often feel inadequate despite professional training and years of experience... myself included. I write op-ed for Newseek-The Washington Post (their On Faith panel) I earned my Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and hold leadership positions in various religion non-profits. And yet I still struggle with the niggling feeling that some boy in the crowd is going to yell, but the princess has no clothes on!

As a feminist who is arguably intelligent, well spoken, and very much qualified to write religious op-ed, this feeling baffles me. Objectively I know I am perfect for what I do, but I can't shake that nagging feeling that I'm just not quite good enough. Fortunately, I'm a pretty good actor, and long ago decided that I should listen to my logic over my emotions. But it at times makes for quite an internal struggle.

I hope I've been able to give my daughters more proportionate self-esteem.

PS. Hi from another backspacer, although I got the cross link here from the copyediting groups.

Sam said...

Sorry, I just thought I'd post my opinion...
You know, we're brought up not to make waves, I think, and to be POLITE at all times. Girls are expected to be unassuming and quiet.
I was a rowdy tomboy but still picked up the social sense that it's stigmatising for a woman to be forward or too 'manly'.
Sorry is used as a difuser - it can hide the steel behind the words, and it can protect the user. I don't like the fact that women use it, but I can understand where it comes from. Until women truly feel equal to men, "I'm sorry," will preface many of their sentences.

Tom said...

I agree... except for the part where you said to the writer "If you could write a literary novel, you would." I can write a literary novel but I don't... because I don't want to. It doesn't take more talent to write a "literary" novel.

Bella Stander said...

I didn't mean to imply a lack of talent. We write the way we want to, the only way we know how.

Tom said...

Gotcha.... and I agree. Probably shouldn't be so defensive. (notice I didn't apologize... must be my male chromosomes.)

Katie said...

Hey! I've heard that Disraeli quote in person! ;-)

One thing I've noticed is that over the years, I've developed a strange instinct to suppress knowledge -- if my remembering or knowing something would make someone "notice", I will, on an almost subconscious level, hesitate or pretend I can't recall.

Very strange! I think it's all tied in together.

Oh, and I was going to brag about my awesome weather for my New York trip -- but now I'm STUCK here with no flight out until Sunday! Joke's on me, ha ha ha.

Bella Stander said...

If you're stuck in NY, go to the Whitney. It's free on Fridays 6-9pm. The Gordon Matta-Clark exhibit on the 4th floor is fantastic. You will truly see things differently.

Kim Stagliano said...

Or go to MOMA midtown. I was there on Monday. You can see some of the world's most famous and recognizable art like Starry Night and Christina's World and some of that art that makes you go "hmmmmm?"