This post originally appeared in “Lilly’s Blog” on RachelSimmons.com.
My friend Amanda is a serial apologizer. She apologizes for being two seconds late, she apologizes when people lovingly tease her, and she apologizes for laughing too loudly. I vividly remember walking to class with her freshman year and someone knocked into her in the stairwell. Amanda’s immediate response was to say sorry to the guy who had nearly sent her tumbling. It seemed as though Amanda felt like she owed the world an apology for her very existence.
The part of me that tries to defy Good Girl expectations wishes Amanda would just yell at the jerk in the stairwell. But I understand where she’s coming from. In Girl World, where the slightest faux pas can make your friend inexplicably upset, you learn to apologize. Girls have come to think of apologies as preventive medicine, daily vitamins to be consumed habitually.
This notion evolved because we have all observed or been involved in a conflict that was miraculously resolved by an apology. I’m not talking about the scenario in which two friends are fighting until someone realizes her fault. She then apologizes by acknowledging her wrongdoing, expresses remorse without making excuses, offers to remedy the situation. Hugging and forgiving ensues. That scenario is pure Disney.
Instead, consider this scene: one of the girls becomes bored with fighting and apologizes by mumbling “sorry,” complete with eye rolls and hair flipping. As soon as she apologizes, the fight is over. Apologies, regardless of how pathetic they are, are instant cures because continuing an argument, even if someone feels truly hurt, is considered mean.
The resounding consensus among girls is that only a bully would dream of not accepting an apology. Good Girls forgive and forget. If apologies instantly end unpleasant conflicts, it seems a logical conclusion to assume that apologizing all the time is likely to prevent conflicts. Amanda is not a pushover, but people assume her constant apologizing means she is willing to do anything to avoid conflict.
I wasn’t the only one concerned by her penchant for penance. Sophomore year we had a teacher who hated when Amanda apologized unnecessarily. Once Amanda met with him outside of class to discuss a paper, and he mentioned that she forgot a cover page. What did Amanda do? You guessed it, she apologized. The teacher chastised her and explained she should just fix her mistake. Amanda responded by saying, bless her heart, sorry.
They had similar interactions over the course of the semester. But Amanda was shocked when she got her report card. At our school it is customary for teachers to write comments about the student in addition to reporting grades. The teacher wrote something to the effect that Amanda would be “taken advantage of” if she did not learn to stop saying sorry. Amanda and her parents were slightly troubled. Was the teacher suggesting that peers or teachers would underestimate her? Or was he warning her of a far more insidious scenario? I think the teacher’s intentions were pure, but he chose the wrong words.
I may not approve of Amanda’s habit in social settings because I think it makes her seem like a pushover. But I also understand that Amanda developed her ability to apologize because she observed the magical power “sorry” has over girls. Amanda knows that girls who apologize are rewarded with relationships without confrontation.
The teacher, on the other hand, has a point. In the real world apologies are only worth as much as the sincerity behind them. Apologizing for minor things seems like bad form; how sincerely regretful can one really feel about an erroneous cover page?
More importantly, the teacher understood Amanda’s apologies sent the wrong message to those around her about her relationship with power. Amanda divorces herself from her power to be rightfully indignant about being bumped into. Apologies are graceful, subtle ways for Good Girls to assure people they won’t make any waves. When an apology is actually warranted, the apologizer is often seen as the “bigger person.” But when girls apologize gratuitously, they forfeit their power to disagree, challenge or be upset in confrontations of any magnitude.
I don’t know if Amanda will ever stop apologizing to the person who cuts her in line. Maybe she would learn not to say sorry so indiscriminately if an odd comment on a report card wasn’t the first time an adult tried to discuss the implications of apologizing with her.