It’s consistently the first word out of our mouths. Sometimes the fourth word preceded by, Oh! I’m SO… A matter of a plastic divider not placed between grocery items to separate them on a conveyor belt: I’m sorry! Reaching around for an extra napkin at the coffee shop: so sorry! The mother of a child who darts across a restaurant: sorry! The occasions are silly; it goes without saying that a genuine apology is not in order. No harm is done in these moments, and yet, without fail, ‘sorry’ is more often than not the seemingly automatic uttering of women.
The words, excuse me, would serve adequately in all these occasions, and yet, ‘sorry’ seems to be our de facto setting. It is significantly women who apologize ad nauseam and not the men nudging in behind me at the grocery store or squeezing by my table in a restaurant. They say, ‘excuse me,’ not sorry. So what are women so sorry about? What are we apologizing for? Our presence? For taking up space in a grocery line? In the world? These questions have bugged me since a septuagenarian called me out.
I was preparing arguments to go before a local historic preservation board to contest the construction of a monstrosity in our quaint neighborhood. My comments to the board could not be subjective assessments of aesthetics; I needed to present well-researched objections rooted in historical code and precedent. I was completely out of my element. I am not an attorney nor an architect. I was looking up definitions and then pictures for the definitions of architectural terms I’d just looked up. I was researching national preservation codes. I was parsing these codes and trying to figure out how to save a majestic Norway maple, the grand dame of trees in our neighborhood that would be cut down in the erecting of the modern monstrosity.
But I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I sought help.
I was referred to a woman who owned her own company and had battled similar cases before the state historical board. She was also one of the founders of the historic neighborhood in which I lived, the woman who outlined and defined the historic characteristics of our community. I imagined a conversation with an old-fashioned sort of lady, one yearning for the good ol’ days back when these modest, unassuming homes were built in a small town without traffic or mobs of tourists. I knew this woman was in her late 70’s and I confess to wondering as I dialed how much help she could be.
Within moments the woman on the other end of the phone abruptly interrupted me. “Stop right there,” she said.
I was only halfway into my introduction of what I was seeking to do and what sources I had thus far consulted.
“You sound like an intelligent woman,” she said. “You sound like a leader.”
I straightened in my chair. I was feeling pretty good. She was going to commend me on the steps I’d taken thus far. But, she said, “I don’t like the way you’re talking.”
I held my breath. What had I done to offend her? I am exceedingly polite, always fearful of confrontation.
“Quit saying, ‘I think.’”
“Sorry?” I said.
“You’ve spent all this time learning about code and researching national historic preservation guidelines so quit it with this, ‘I think.’ That’s not what you say to the board. You tell them, I. Have. Concluded. Period.:
I wrote these words down but faintly in the margin of my notes.
“Only women say, ‘I think,’” she went on. “Men never say, I think. They just know. I’ve worked too hard all these years, and it hurts my ears to hear you talk like that. Now, you learn what you need to learn and then you’re the expert and you go before them and tell them they are wrong. None of this, ‘I think you’re wrong.’ Just, ‘you are wrong’.”
I fumbled over the phone. My mouth was halfway to pronouncing, sorry. I bit my lip and kept quiet. Gloria Steinem spoke at my graduation from a small, all-girls school in New England. I suddenly thought of Ms. Steinem and my heart sank. I was an 18 year-old woman heading off to an Ivy-league university that was all male not so very long ago. I never thought of gender. I didn’t need to think about it; it went without saying even by Ms. Steinem that I could do anything a man could do. It was what I was raised to believe, this conviction, this certitude wound assuredly around the very DNA that coiled through me. When had I started apologizing? When had I started doubting myself and undermining, even dismissing my convictions as mere thoughts as if I risked challenging a man’s opinions?
“You’re right,”I finally said into the phone. The business owner was quiet. She was clearly disgusted. “Email me what you need,” she said and hung up.
For a while I thought I had something to prove to her, but as the weeks passed and I prepared my oral comments to the board and circulated a neighborhood petition, I realized it had nothing to do with the older woman, nothing to do with my memory of now 84 year-old Steinem and her commencement address because she wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know then; it’s only now, at age 49, that I am struggling to remember Ms. Steinem’s words and her clarion call to overhaul an unacceptable status quo.
When my friend picks me up for book club, the first word out of her mouth is ‘sorry.’ She is not even a full minute late.
“I forgot Ella’s soccer cleats and had to go back,” she says. “Sorry for the mess!”
“Don’t be, I tell her.”
Her car is a mess. She is a busy mother and business owner, the middle row crammed with her work satchel and the children’s backpacks and sports duffles. Poster boards for an upcoming presentation fan like wings over the back seat. There are crumbs in the seams of the leather seats, which remind me of all those afternoons of driving my children to after-school activities, snacks at the ready at school pick up, another child dropped off, a third picked up and taken home to start homework, while I quickly turned up the slow-cooker and raced out the door for another child’s pick up.
When it was finally quiet and I had time to think, it was alarming to consider how little I accomplished in a day of rushing around. Picking up and dropping off and repeating the cycle with three children doesn’t produce results or deliverables. There was nothing substantive to list on a resume which trailed off so many years ago when I decided to stay home with my newborn son. Not for a second do I regret that decision. But am I sorry?
Sorry that I have not accomplished what so many of my impressive peers from college and grad school can claim in their hash tags and bios on Twitter and Instagram? Their degrees and fellowships, publications and awards, and Fortune 500 companies. I don’t kid myself. I realize no one else cares what I have “accomplished” or not “accomplished.” I am surrounded by family and friends who support me and respect how I chose to mother a son and two daughters who are kind, compassionate, hard-working and ambitious adults.
So what are we apologizing for?
An underlying sense of inadequacy regardless of whether we have opted in or out of the workforce, opted in or out of full-time parenting? Why does it feel like we are apologizing for our very presence?
By saying sorry, we make ourselves smaller as we inch out of men’s way, out of each other’s way. I could share the phone number of the business owner in her late 70’s who schooled me, but I think I can tell you what she’d say to us: quit it. I think she might add, it’s time we take up more space.
A lot more space. Use our elbows if necessary. Make some noise about it. And no more apologies. We are doing just fine.
Claudia Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon. She graduated with honors from Harvard and received a master’s degree at SMU, where she studied Medieval French literature. Her fiction, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, International Herald Tribune, Flash Fiction Magazine, BLUNTMoms, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, Bend Lifestyle Magazine and True North Parenting. Her first novel is out on submission with Writers House in New York, and she is currently at work on a novel about a Marine returning home from Fallujah. Follow on Twitter @ChinzClaudia