by Julia Overton-Healy
All too often, as a Student Affairs professional woman who coaches a lot of young college women, I hear women students start a sentence with “I’m sorry but…” They are usually asking a question –perfectly encouraged since they are, after all, trying to learn something; or expressing a thought—again, wonderfully welcome because we are in a classroom and thought is our main currency of exchange. Sometimes they want to share an opinion; always a happy moment since it indicates they’ve thought about the information they now understand and have weighed it against other information they have and formulated a decision about the entire process. Often they are simply reacting to someone else’s comment; again, highly welcome since conversation and discussion is one of the best ways we learn about our world. So I am baffled when I hear “I’m sorry but” as a prelude to a question, thought, opinion or reaction—all of which are welcome in my class!
I’ve started interrupting my students now when I hear them do this. I’ll just butt right in—rude, I know—and ask them “what are you sorry for?” They often look at me as if I’ve lost my mind… and maybe I have but that’s a topic for another conversation. The exchange often goes like this:
Student: “So, I’m sorry but I think…”
Me: “What are you sorry for?”
Student: “What? Huh? Sorry. I don’t understand.”
Me: “That’s no reason to apologize.”
Student: “What? Sorry, I don’t get it.”
Me: “Again, no apology is necessary or expected. Simply not knowing something does not require an apology. Goodness, if I apologized for not knowing things—like quantum physics, or how to perform open heart surgery, or tricks to running a marathon, or how to make the perfect soufflé, then all I’d ever get done all day is apologize for not knowing the universe of information.”
Student: (Blank stare.)
Me: “You said, initially, ‘I’m sorry but I think…’ and I was just asking why you were apologizing for thinking.”
And at that point, an entirely different conversation takes shape about why, as women particularly, we feel compelled to offer up an “I’m sorry” for expressing ourselves.
The larger issue is, I think, the ways our young women on our campuses view themselves, and how college environments, in general, perpetuate negative self-concepts for women. Language is a very powerful tool we have to build—or undercut—perceptions. I know language is ever-evolving, which is all the more reason we need to put attention on the language our students use as they talk about themselves, each other, their communities, the world. One word I rarely hear young women (or men) use in a positive way is “feminist”. However it happened, this term now has a highly negative connotation. When I talk with women students they, by a significant majority, reject the label of ‘feminist’ for themselves, even as at the same time they aspire to equality with men. And when I ask them why the term is unsuitable, the typical response is that it suggests ‘hating men’ or being too radical.
In these conversations, as we invariably explore the power of language on perceptions I often bring up the automatic apology. They start to see how unmindful apologies erode their own sense of self, of autonomy, of independence. Sometimes they then connect the dots: from apology to negative self-labeling to abdication of equal rights. It can be quite a leap, or a very tiny step, but it happens.
And almost always, then next time in class, they start to say “I’m sorry but…” and they stop themselves…and smile.
(Featured image on this blog refers to a video that went viral recently from a HuffPost article entitled: Pantene ‘Not Sorry’ Video Tells Women To Stop Apologizing So Much.)
Dr. Julia Overton-Healy has been teaching, coaching, mentoring and guiding young adults for longer than she cares to admit…and loves every day of it. Currently the Director for Career Development at SUNY Plattsburgh, in her spare time, she is an avid reader, enjoys ‘quality’ reality TV (whatever that means), biking and hiking. She is also the founder and CEO of Sky Top Strategies, a consulting and coaching services firm focused on helping young adults new to their careers build self-leadership and professionalism. @JuliaHealy is the Twitter name if you want to follow.