Last semester, I was assigned to the worst group I’ve ever had to work with throughout my four years at UC Berkeley. This wasn’t a team for a one-off assignment or just some random project — it was worth 40% of our grade, and against all logic, my peers showed absolutely no intent in participating.
“I hope everyone is doing well!” I’d type out. “Sorry for the double texts, but our paper is due tomorrow. SO sorry for asking again, but if you can’t do your part, please let me know.”
I spent as much time crafting apologetic texts to send my group, gently encouraging them to consider clicking on our Google Doc, as it took to actually just write and submit the assignment for them instead. Regardless of my better sense nudging me with reminders that I shouldn’t let anyone else take credit for my work, I had an irresistible instinct to apologize. It was hard to justify empathy for an unresponsive team — the need to account for my implorations and my hesitation in bluntly calling out people without feeling obligated to cushion the blow — but I typed it out and hit send anyway.
I do believe that there is strength in compassion. We’ve all likely been on the receiving side of slapdash comments or a badly thought-out text, which have the ability to cut deeper than necessary. Having insight into other people’s feelings is important. But as a graduating student preparing to tackle the real world, I am becoming increasingly cognizant of the need to display confidence, firmness and surety in my words and actions — not for other people to see, but to boost the internal faith I have in my own opinions and decisions.
My introspections have revealed three general categories of apologies. There’s the gentle sorry — such as when someone next to you drops a stack of papers and you acknowledge the unfortunate event before you. Then, there’s the sorry for when you do something wrong, or when a situation that actually warrants an actual apology arises.
But finally, and the most problematic, is when a person — often a woman — is preconditioned to apologize for the little things. You know, talking, walking past someone, texting classmates to do their own project, breathing, existing.
A 2015 New York Times op-ed outlines how many women link apologies with a conception of politeness. As an unfortunate victim of serial apologizing, I often ponder in retrospect about my decisions to insert a shaky “sorry” into an otherwise pithy sentence. I inexorably fill gaps in conversation with the dreaded word — not as an apology or necessarily a regret of sorts, but instead an attempt to appear more amenable and easygoing.
But why does this even matter? A vague propensity to blurt out the odd sorry doesn’t necessarily sound like a big deal. But it definitely is one.
Rhetorical connotations and their implications can extremely influence intent and capability. Harvard Business Review released a podcast in its “Women at Work” series that describes verbal blips of the sort as “minimizing language.” This manner of speaking seems insignificant, but proves to be demeaning to women. According to the podcast, a casual apology — whether in person or over messaging — indicates a person at fault, which makes one look less competent than they are and can negatively influence career advancements.
In my new quest toward becoming a more authoritative voice in my own head, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in grappling with the impact of such language quips. A handy browser extension, fittingly named “Just Not Sorry,” points out when I use shaky phrases. Highlighting every “I’m not sure but” or “maybe we could” in emails stunned me, as it visualized the frequency with which uncertainty has undermined my messages.
Clearly, saying sorry is bigger than a two-syllable word. To retrain my mind to forgo it, I’ve been paying close attention to my communication. The other day, I emailed a group asking to reschedule a meeting because I was unavailable during the time they had slated. I consciously excluded the “sorry for the inconvenience, but …” that I was itching to type out. I had little reason to be sorry. Last weekend, I waited until the next morning to reply to an email I got Saturday night, and I didn’t apologize for not responding immediately.
I, like most students sitting through virtual classes in the middle of a pandemic, had another dismal project group this semester. But my words no longer place a disproportionate onus on myself. Wiping away the unnecessary apologies lifted a huge mental burden. By taking blame away from myself, I’m able to work in teams more constructively. Taking small steps of the sort to reclaim my own power and to teach myself that I’m allowed to aim high instead of pulling myself down has helped me become more self-assured and confident. Paying attention to my own words, thoughts and unconscious tendencies has influenced me to think more positively and project my thoughts more eloquently. As women, many of us need to work purposefully to climb the ranks. Whether it’s a group assignment, a corporate project or a casual text, I’m determined to display strength instead of weakness — I’m not sorry anymore.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.