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Actor, Author, Screenwriter, Director and Producer
Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was a massive cultural event for a lot of profound reasons, not least of which because it gave women a melody to which they could sing the words “Sorry, I ain’t sorry,” again and again (and again). This refrain immediately became the stuff of Instagram captions and yearbook quotes and screaming, drunken bachelorette parties: partially because it’s catchy as fuck, but also because it allowed women to express (safely, while pretending with all their might to be Bey) just how sick to death they were of apologizing.
Apologizing is a modern plague and I’d be willing to bet (though I have zero scientific research to back this up) that many women utter “I’m sorry” more on a given day than “Thank You” and “You’re Welcome” combined. So many of the women I know apologize like it’s a job they were given by the government (we’ll save the whys of that for a massive sociology text). We rush to say it when we’re interrupted. We scream it across a crowded restaurant when someone else arrives late so we’ve lost our table. We mutter it when a man walks too close to us on the street. As I write this, a Mister Softee truck is singing its grating tune right below my window and I want to run and apologize to the driver for how insane he’s making me.
I’m not sure when in my life “the sorries” began, but I can distinctly remember apologizing profusely to a girl who didn’t invite me to her birthday party in second grade, after she publicly handed invitations out to the whole class in front of me. Sorry for my tears. Sorry you had to be mean. Sorry I’m not the kind of person you’d want to attend a Sunday afternoon romp at the YMCA. Sorry.
But to quote Madonna “I’m not sorry (I’m not sorry)… I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me.” Because the fact is, a lot of the time when I say sorry it’s because I’m mad. Really mad. So mad that I’m afraid anything but sorry will cause me to explode and drip my hideous rage juice all over someone I’m simultaneously pissed at and trying to please. And so saying sorry serves as a sort of cork, making sure my emotions are contained and packaged neatly. Sorry is the wrapping paper AND the bow.
I say sorry all day, which doesn’t make sense considering I’m not a warlord, a drunk driver, or a pizza delivery guy speeding down 6th Avenue on a fixed gear bike scaring the shit out of pedestrians. I am a woman who is sometimes right, sometimes wrong but somehow always sorry. And this has never been more clear to me than in the six years since I became a boss. It’s hard for many of us to own our power, but as a 24-year-old woman (girl, gal, whatever I was) I felt an acute and dangerous mix of total confidence and the worst imposter syndrome imaginable. I had men more than twice my age for whom I was the final word on the set of “Girls,” and I had to express my needs and desires clearly to a slew of lawyers, agents and writers. And while my commitment to my work overrode almost any performance anxiety I had, it didn’t override my hardwired instinct to apologize. If I changed my mind, if someone disagreed with me, even if someone else misheard me or made a mistake… I was so, so sorry. “If you say sorry again, I’m going to lovingly murder you,” Jenni texted during a meeting. “I’m sorry,” I texted back.
It was actually my father who gave me the challenge: “What would happen if you spent this week NOT apologizing?” I was back at work after a health-related hiatus and I was feeling particularly vulnerable, aka sorry. “Doll, you’ve apologized to me 10 times in the last 10 minutes.” I told him it was even worse with my friends and a total parody at work, where I was sorry for having to pee. My father likes to counter my anxiety with love-based aggression: “Get it the fuck together!”
The next day I tried to accept his challenge. But what do you replace sorry with? Well for starters, you can replace it with an actual expression of your needs and desires. And it turns out when you express what you want (without a canned and insincere apology) everyone benefits. Your employees know what you want from them and can do their jobs with clarity and pride. The dynamic remains healthy and open. You feel 79% less shame (there’s 21% of human shame that’s just baseline and incurable, right!?)
Because it turns out saying sorry somehow makes you sorrier. In friendships, it creates tension and some odd drama where there wasn’t any. Think about it: if your friend is apologizing to you all day for a slight that you didn’t even register, then you start to wonder what she did! You start to wonder what you did! Everyone is confused! Let’s just trust that when our friends have something they need an apology for, they’ll be honest and clear, and when we really need to offer one, we’ll know it.
Mind you, I am not negating the power of a real apology, especially in the workplace. One of the most important things a person in charge can do is own their mistakes and apologize sincerely and specifically, in a way that shows their colleagues they have learned and they will do better (I’ll try, OK!?) But if most women I know — some bros too — were to keep an apology log, I bet they would find these sincere apologies are few and far between, and deeply diminished by the litany of reflex sorries they’re doling out all day.
I won’t say my father’s experiment cured me. After all, I’ve been apologizing profusely since 1989 — like pigs in blankets and reading celebrity gossip, it’s not a habit easily broken. But it illustrated a better way. Something to strive for. When I replaced apologies with more fully formed and honest sentiments, a world of communication possibilities opened up to me. I’m just sorry it took me so long.