The dangers of being overly apologetic

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“Sorry, excuse me, can I get through please?” I wiggled my way to the head of the bed. Quickly, I set up the necessary intubation tools as the patient arrives shortly thereafter. A frenzy ensues, tubes flying over the patient, people talking over each other.

“Can you draw me up some RSI meds? Let’s get this guy intubated now. Sorry, but I need it quiet in here.” Tube placed, a wave of calm flooded the room, and the pace slowed. As I was putting away the laryngoscope, I asked the nurse, “Was I too bossy?”

Sorry is a crutch: a filler word. A way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear nicer while making a demand. Apologizing for every action lessens the possibility of being perceived as rude or obtrusive, preventing any overstepping of the confined lines of the stereotyped feminine woman.

Differences in speech between men and women were the core of the sociolinguistics study done by Robin Lakoff. Lakoff is a linguist from the University of California, Berkeley who wrote Language and Woman’s Place. In her book, she noted some of the following as common female speech patterns:

    • Hedges: phrases like “sort of,” “kind of,” “it seems like”
    • Super-polite forms: “Would you mind …” “… if it’s not too much to ask” “Is it OK if …?”
    • Apologize more: “I’m sorry, but I think that …”
    • Speak less frequently
    • Tag questions: “You don’t mind eating this, do you?”
    • Indirect requests: “Wow, I’m so thirsty,” but really asking for a drink

It was because of these subtle phrasings that she found, “strong expressions of feelings are avoided and expression of uncertainty is favored … leading to the marginality and powerlessness of women.”

From a young age, women are trained to be nurturing and agreeable. Any deviation can be off putting so they are conditioned to apologize before speaking, thus appearing less aggressive.  For any woman in a position of power, there is a constant struggle to delicately give orders without offending anyone. This is especially so for women in medicine who constantly face the dilemma of balancing femininity and assertiveness. One tip of the scale in either direction causes them to lose credibility. Soft spoken becomes unsure and incompetent, assertiveness is seen as “bitchy” and hard to work with. It is because of this fear that there is a blatant overuse of comfort words such as “sorry.”

The majority of times, we really aren’t sorry to be asking a question, we’re simply trying to be polite. We are making a direct statement without being flagged as “bossy.” It is a another way of downplaying our power, softening our approach in an attempt to seem nice. Though females physicians have made great strides in attaining equality, medicine still has an unspoken element of the “Good Old Boys’ Club.” Many times there are lingering double standards for behaviors commonly accepted by our male counterparts. It is because of these fears of not following our gender roles that we don’t speak up for ourselves. But silence is dangerous; it lends approval and reinforces negative stereotypes that feed the vicious cycle of inequality. Apologizing unnecessarily places women in a subservient position, thus causing loss of respect.

Evidence has shown that women are less self-assured than men; and that to succeed, confidence matters just as much as competence. With the increase in female presence in the workforce and graduate and professional schools, it has never been more obvious that the competence is there. The limiting factor now is the confidence. With the barrage of daily “sorrys” that seemingly question our abilities, we are just taking steps backwards. As success correlates closely with confidence just as much as competence, it is no wonder women are still underrepresented at the highest levels. Being overly apologetic is robbing us of self-esteem, dignity, and respect.

Fear not though, as new evidence emerges frequently on how much our brains can change in response to shifting thought patterns and behaviors. It has been shown that confidence can be self-perpetuating, so it is crucial to surround ourselves with strong minded females that support and encourage us — those that remind us that being “sorry” should be reserved for wrongdoings as opposed to taking up time that should be allocated to stating and expressing what we want. It is essential to continue bolstering this confidence so that we achieve everything that we are deserving of, and show the future generation of women that they too are worthy.   So following in the footsteps of Julia Child who once famously said, “never apologize,” sorry, but not sorry.

Theresa Hsiao is an emergency medicine resident.  This article originally appeared in FeminEm.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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