A popular 1970s movie, Love Story, controversially proclaimed “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I’d like to tweak that and propose that humility means never having to say you’re sorry. Especially if you’re a woman.
Women generally have more difficulty than men in being assertive in the workplace. And we all know women who say “sorry” compulsively (this post from The Onion hilariously illustrates this sad but common habit).
For those of us with Christian upbringings that emphasized humility, this might not seem like such a flaw. Surely it’s better to err on the side of being under assertive than to be arrogant or rude?
I’d like to posit that this is a false dichotomy. Saying “I’m sorry” often shows not a lack of confidence but an excess of pride.
Saying you’re sorry can mean a lot of things. It can mean–
I did something wrong and I apologize for what I’ve done.
I didn’t do anything wrong but I want to express my sympathy for your suffering.
I may or may not have done anything wrong but I don’t want you to be upset with me.
I’m insecure and don’t want you to dislike me so I’ll say I’m sorry just in case.
I’m extremely insecure and I apologize for my existence.
But apologies also can be prideful. Saying “I’m sorry” might also mean
I think you might judge me and I don’t want you to think that my standards are low.
In her book The Nesting Place, Myquillyn Smith explains this well in the context of apologizing for our homes:
I always apologized for my home to protect myself so people wouldn’t think I was a slob, or at least so they would know that I acknowledge I can be a slob and that I’m not okay with it and that really I have much higher standards. . . . When I apologize for my home, I’m declaring to all within earshot that I’m not content. That I’m silently keeping score.
When I started paying attention to how often I said “I’m sorry,” I was shocked to discover the thought that was at the bottom of many of my apologies:
I’m aware of the possibility that I might be doing something incorrect without knowing it. I’m saying sorry so that you won’t think I’m clueless.
Pride pride pride.
Paradoxically, it takes both humility and confidence to say what you need to say and do what you need to do without apologizing–even when you know there’s possibly you might be making a mistake. In this life we can never be 100% sure of not making a mistake. Let’s stop apologizing for that and get over ourselves already.
Of course, we still need to make apologies when we discover our mistakes. Apologies are necessary if (a) we do something wrong that hurts someone else or (b) we hurt or inconvenience someone inadvertently (but only when we know this is actually the case, not just a distant possibility). But when an apology is necessary, isn’t it better to say, “I was wrong—I apologize—please forgive me” than to offer an overused and ambiguous “sorry”?
Ladies, I have a challenge for you for 2015: be confident, be humble, but don’t be sorry!