Excerpt from Chapter 8: Women

"I'm Sorry" — October 2008

How often do you say "I'm sorry" to a complete stranger? If you're a man, the answer may be "seldom" or "never." But if you're a woman (and you carefully monitor your spontaneous comments when out shopping or anywhere you encounter other people), you may find that you tend to say "I'm sorry" a lot! In fact, you'll notice that it's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to any even remotely awkward encounter with another person.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's an example: You're rounding the corner of an aisle in the grocery store and notice another customer in the general line of the path you'll be taking—and you immediately say "I'm sorry" as if you had no right to be there in the same aisle.

I've noticed this tendency in many women over the years, including in myself. It applies to young women, old women, women in suits, women in sneakers, women with babies pushing strollers, etc. It also applies to interactions both with men and with other women. I've even seen women bump into an inanimate object and say "I'm sorry" before it registers on them that there was no other person involved.

Naturally, there are occasions where anyone can inadvertently cause inconvenience to another person, but I'm curious as to why we're so quick to take responsibility for incidents that are in no way due to anything we've done wrong. I suspect it's a combination of personal tendencies plus a big dose of conditioning as females.

While individual issues may play a role in the habit of saying "I'm sorry," I suspect it's primarily due to a much more universal set of issues that exist in society as a whole. For instance, the experience of growing up female tends to lead us to see ourselves as the primary nurturer as compared to men. This means we're generally more aware of and more sensitive to the idea of being considerate of others, which then leads us to be far more likely to be willing to sacrifice, accommodate and inconvenience ourselves for the sake of those around us.

Also, little girls are expected/trained to be "nice" and "polite" far more than little boys. And we've taken this niceness/politeness to an unreasonable point where we lose sight of our innate worth and rights as a person. We're more likely to depend on our deeds to determine our self-esteem. And if we're not being ultra-considerate of others, we feel we're not being a "good" person.

One reason I hold these beliefs about women in general is because I think they're part of what has contributed to my own tendency to say "I'm sorry." And since I can't know what's inside the heads of other women, I can only try to dig down in myself to see why "I" tend to react this way.

I do know that regardless of the esteem in which others may hold me, I don't feel OK unless I meet my own standards of what it means to be thoughtful and considerate. These standards are so unreasonable that, for instance, if I even think of something nice to do for someone else (and then fail to follow through and do it), I feel "guilty." No one else even knows of the possibility of what I might have done, but I still feel bad about myself. (Unfortunately, I tend to have a lot of spontaneous ideas about nice things I could do for people—which keeps me constantly disappointed in myself.)

As I've written in the past, oftentimes our weaknesses are simply overuses of our strengths. So while it's an admirable quality to be considerate of others, it's obviously gone beyond being reasonable when it leads us as women to say "I'm sorry" in instances where it makes no sense at all. So rather than walking around with a mindset of being prepared to thoughtlessly apologize at the drop of a hat, we'd all be better served by being prepared to actually notice what's happening and determine whether or not it's appropriate to say "I'm sorry."

One final irony... While we're much too quick to say "I'm sorry" to strangers for any real or imagined slight or inconvenience, we're much less inclined to say "I'm sorry" to our spouse or children or friends—even when it would be appropriate to do so. (Maybe we use up our apologies with strangers.) The bottom line is that we'd all be better off if we were more selective in when we do—or don't say "I'm sorry."

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