Have you seen the Amy Schumer skit that shows a panel of highly qualified women who are so busy apologizing that they essentially self-destruct on stage? There’s the scientist who studies neuropeptides, the Nobel Prize winner, the Pulitzer recipient, the inventor of a solar panel water filtration system, and the founder of a school for child soldiers. They hardly get to talk about their work, though. When the male moderator makes mistakes in introducing them, they correct him—with apologies, of course. One woman apologizes for talking. Another asks for water but is given a soda. She’s allergic to caffeine, though, and apologizes for requesting water. Then she is given a coffee, which she apologizes for also, saying it’s her fault for asking for the thing she can actually drink and asked for in the first place. The whole thing spins into a frenzy of “I’m sorrys” that’s more uncomfortable funny than laugh-out-loud funny—which is, of course, the point. The skit is 100 percent absurd, but it strikes a nerve.
Why do women apologize so much?
The most obvious answer is socialization. Women have learned that to be perceived as a rude woman is to invite a much more difficult existence. “For so many women, myself included, apologies are inexorably linked with our conception of politeness,” writes Sloane Crosley for The New York Times. “Somehow, as we grew into adults, ‘sorry’ became an entry point to basic affirmative sentences.” But as Crosley also points out, it’s a coping mechanism for existing in a world where we have been largely powerless. “It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want,” she writes. While we might hope that this pathological sorryness will fade into the background and be replaced with a self-assured Wonder Woman approach by younger generations of females, there’s little evidence showing this to be the case. It’s a paradox, says Crosley. “Every day, we see more unapologetically self-assured female role models, yet women’s extreme prostration seems only to have increased.” What’s happening, then? Why is a skit about accomplished women apologizing themselves into oblivion still so resonant? And how can we teach girls to speak with confidence?
Individuation is important.
Individuation—a term often associated with psychoanalyst Carl Jung—is the process of identifying oneself as a competent, whole individual. Jung made a point of distinguishing between individualism and individuation. He regarded the former as being largely ego driven and the latter as a more holistic actualization of one’s self, requiring both an awareness of one’s unconscious and the willingness to sacrifice one’s ego. “The natural process of individuation brings to birth a consciousness of human community precisely because it makes us aware of the unconscious, which unites and is common to all mankind,” Jung wrote. “Individuation is an at-one-ment with oneself and at the same time with humanity, since oneself is a part of humanity.”
In their book The Triple Bind, Stephen Hinshaw, PhD, and Rachel Kranz shed light on the conflicting messages sent to girls. Hinshaw points out that boys “are traditionally seen as having more of the skills that lead to individuation: assertiveness, self-confidence, expressiveness, and commitment to one’s own agenda.” Meanwhile, girls are caught in a “triple bind“—told to “act sweet and nice,” “be a star athlete and get straight A’s,” and “seem sexy and hot even if you’re not.” “From a young age boys are praised and encouraged when they show direct, confident behaviors—winning a game or climbing to the highest branch,” writes Rae Jacobson for the Child Mind Institute. “Girls … are also told to be ambitious, smart, and successful. But for them the directive comes with conditions that hamper individuation.” For example? Girls are told, “Be confident, but not conceited.” “Be smart, but no one likes a know-it-all.” “Ambition is good, but trying too hard is bad.” “Be assertive, but only if it doesn’t upset anyone else.”
Confidence needs a spokesmodel.
Children learn how to act by mimicking those who raise them, especially a parent whose gender they identify with. “Girls who hear parents—especially moms—over-apologizing or using hedging language are likely to pick up the habit themselves,” Jacobson writes.
By “hedging,” Jacobson means using qualifiers like “Excuse me…” “Can I ask?” “I might be wrong, but…” and “I don’t know, but…” “Being mindful of your own language will set an example of confident speech and show [your daughter] you support her learning to do the same,” Jacobson tells parents—presumably moms in particular. Still not feeling so self-assured? The solution may be as simple as faking it until you make it, according to advice from the Child Mind Institute on raising confident kids. The institute advises parents to embody confidence “even if you’re not quite feeling it!” This provides children with a model for what confidence in speech and behavior looks like. “Seeing you tackle new tasks with optimism and lots of preparation sets a good example for kids,” the institute encourages. “That doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be perfect. Do acknowledge your anxiety, but don’t focus on it—focus on the positive things you are doing to get ready.”
Some girls absorb the message that having an opinion that doesn’t align with the group’s is uppity or adversarial. It’s essential to teach girls (and all children) that critical thinking, dissent, and learning through mistakes are a natural—and necessary—part of robust individuality and citizenship. “It can feel scary to commit to a statement that others might not like, but learning to be comfortable with disagreement and debate will make her more resilient and give her a healthy toolkit for managing adversity in the future,” says Jacobson. The importance of dissent and the ability to firmly say no are also imperative to the development and maintenance of personal boundaries. As long as children are not properly educated about enthusiastic consent and men are let off the hook for unwelcome sexual advances, females’ safety may depend on it.
Toronto clinical psychologist Lori Haskell, discussing the sexual assault trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, said she believed it was “deeply ingrained in women’s socialization” to treat the fear of making a romantic partner unhappy or being abandoned by them with “a higher psychological priority than acknowledging their own sense of discomfort and anger and violation.”
Give praise for directness.
While it may be helpful to consider out how linguistic habits are contributing to girls’ disempowerment, as a parent or teacher you may prefer to take the approach of positive reinforcement. Instead of telling girls that the way they talk is wrong (“Stop apologizing so much!”), you might focus your energy on identifying and celebrating when they are being assertive and praising them for their directness. “Instead of overprizing politeness, help your daughter focus on being direct first, and polite second,” advises Jacobson. “Using clear language demonstrates confidence and makes it more likely her point will be heard. Work together to test out alternative statements that are polite, but direct.” Why should we treat stereotypically feminine and stereotypically masculine behaviors as mutually exclusive sets of traits, anyway? What would happen if we raised girls (really, all children) to be assertive—celebrated them for “winning a game or climbing to the highest branch”—but also taught them to understand and value their emotions and the emotions of others? This isn’t just good, egalitarian parenting. It’s how you change the world.