Last month, I heard my kid say "I'm sorry" to a complete stranger at Target for no reason. He didn't bump her, he didn't use his outside voice indoors. His perceived mistake? Being in her path. He was looking at his favorite toys, considering which one he wanted as a reward for using the big potty. He had every right to be there. He was sweet and polite and moved aside.
But his apology stuck with me. It stuck because I heard my tone, my inflection, my knee-jerk, borderline shame in my son's apology. And it stung.
For the rest of our outing, I chose to do an experiment. I went where I wanted to go, let my awesome kid be generally awesome, and bit my hyper-apologetic tongue whenever I encountered another shopper who crossed my path. And here is what my very non-scientific, completely correlation-based social experiment revealed: women apologized constantly and men said nothing. Maybe the guys dipped their heads in acknowledgment, but none of them apologized for being in my way or interrupting my Target Flow. Women, on the other hand, would apologize and then they would shrink. They would move their carts, hug the aisles, apologize as though they tripped my kid instead of just trying to decide which pair of printed leggings they wanted.
There is this thing we've been conditioned to do, especially as women. We apologize for taking up space in the world. We are acutely aware of the physical, emotional, and psychological footprint we carry around and leave in our wake. We tell our children to also be sorry, as though they don't deserve to breathe air and take up space just like the rest of us. Sometimes, social conditioning takes over and the boys grow out of it. Sometimes, girls grow up and stop saying "I'm sorry," and then they are considered selfish or vain. Or worse, they are considered entitled. I was appalled that day in Target by how easy it was to say sorry for nothing, how ready my tongue was to let it slip right out.
So, I want to issue a challenge. To you. Stop apologizing for taking up space in this world. You can be considerate and polite without being sorry. You deserve to be in Target. You deserve to take as long as you want picking out just the right throw pillow or bicycle helmet. You don't owe anyone anything for the privilege of being alive and taking up space, just like everyone else is entitled to being alive and taking up space. Let's practice.
You are at the grocery store, looking at their 100 different kinds of cheese. Someone comes within two feet of your indecisive aura and you:
- Apologize for being in the other person's way and try to become one with your shopping cart in order to make more space for the person to see.
- Mumble something unintelligible and rush away like your pants are infested with fire ants.
- Look up, make a little space if absolutely necessary, and continue contemplating the taste and texture differences between that spendy artisan Comte and store-brand grated Parmesan.
If you answered #3, give yourself a high five and start eating that cheese before you even get to the car.
You are using the copy machine at work. It's doing the thing that copy machines do, which is eat your paper and then break down like a Ford Fiesta after 5k miles of use. Another co-worker comes up behind you and starts a one-person copy machine line. You:
- Apologize profusely to the person behind you and try to rip the tufts of paper from the copier's death grip whilst following the trouble shooting screen's prompts that are written in some sort of ancient hieroglyphic text. You feel overly responsible for something you have no control over, and worry that you are ruining the other person's entire work day because of it.
- Turn seven shades of red, offer to take their copies to Kinkos and pick up coffee for them, and the bill for both while you're at it, because obviously their lives are ruined all because of you. You also collate them by hand on your lunch break because you feel so bad.
- Let the person know the copier is busted and, unless they can decipher the trouble shooting directions written in bizarre squiggles and useless triangles, it might be better for them to find another machine.
Again, #3 is the correct answer.
So, what are some other things you can say instead of "I'm sorry?"
Or say nothing. Nothing at all.
How can you help change the "I'm sorry" loop while you are out and about?
Remind each other that there is no harm done with words. Say:
"You deserve to take ups space here, just like me."
"No harm done."
"No apology necessary."
"You were here first, I'm in no rush."
We all deserve to walk through this life with empowered presence. So, can we stop apologizing for existing already? You deserve to be here on this earth, as this version of yourself, taking up space and time and energy and air. No apology necessary.