How to ditch the sorry reflex

Are you a constant apologiser? It's time to put an end to the redundant sorry reflex and start owning your opinions, space and self-worth.

Can you hear that? Oh wait, it’s just the collective sound of unnecessary apologies echoing across every office, home, and public space in the country. Because if you haven’t noticed yet women tend to say “sorry”. A lot. These apologies are as haunting as they are frustrating as barely an hour goes by without one of us saying “sorry” for something that never needed an apology to start with. 

Hollywood heavyweight Amy Poehler said it best in her debut book, Yes Please. “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for," she wrote. "It takes years to find your voice and your real estate.”

So how do we put an end to the unnecessary apologies and start living our truth? Author of The Good Girl Stripped Bare, Now Australia founder and co-founder of Outspoken Women, Tracey Spicer explains how we can put an end to this damaging behaviour and own our opinion.

Why do some women feel the need to constantly apologise for themselves, their ideas, or the space they inhabit?

From childhood, girls are taught to monitor how much space they take up – verbally and physically. “Act like a lady, be polite, speak quietly, stop interrupting, stop being such a know-it-all, sit nicely with your legs together!” At school, girls are often required to wear dresses or skirts, which makes them restrict their movements in ways the boys don’t. Have you ever tried doing a cartwheel or hanging upside down on a monkey bar in a skirt? As girls get older they then learn that they’re expected to be thin, and shorter than the men they date. No wonder girls grow up feeling they’re not allowed to take up too much space.

Do you believe this relentless need to apologise is partly learned behaviour?

It is absolutely learned behaviour from a society that values outspokenness and assertiveness in men but sees these attributes in women as bossy and unattractive. Men are taught to speak up, while women are encouraged to “tone it down” and “stop dominating the conversation”. There are literally sanctions for women who speak too much. In 2012, Professor Victoria Brescoli from the Yale School of Management found that women who talk too much in the office are seen as less competent, but the more men voice their opinions, the better they are seen at doing their jobs. Now – that’s not a suggestion that women should shut up in order to get ahead. No! We just have to keep speaking up, making a noise, and making outspoken women seem "the norm". It’s not women who have to check our outspokenness, it’s men who have to change their attitudes and perceptions.

Could the “sorry” reflex be linked to an inferiority complex?

I don’t think most women have inferiority complexes. I’ve heard really smart, strong, confident, successful women saying “sorry” or ‘hedging’ or qualifying their speech. I don’t think I lack confidence - I’m sure I don’t - but I have caught myself saying, “I just think that …” or “It’s sort of …” or even “I’m no expert, but …” Ugh! I’ve worked really hard not to do that and to encourage other women not to put themselves down by the way they speak. Recently, I was listening to a brilliant young woman with a thriving, successful business. What she was saying was fantastic, but I noticed she added, “OK?” after nearly every sentence, as if she was asking for approval, or permission to keep speaking. It was a subconscious vocal tic. And, she’d be aghast if you suggested she lacks confidence.

Is the “sorry” reflex even more prevalent and damaging within female minority groups? For example, women with disabilities, women who are considered plus size, migrant women, women of different religions or lower socio-economic backgrounds?

Definitely. It’s all about power. And these are some of the most disadvantaged people within our communities.

What are some of the lasting effects these small but unnecessary apologies can have on our confidence?

The most important thing to realise is that it’s something we do subconsciously. I don’t want women and girls to get self-conscious about the way they speak, but it’s a good idea to listen to yourself. Are you ‘excusing’ yourself for being in the room and having an opinion? Honestly, it’s not so much the effect that saying sorry has on our confidence, but on the way we’re perceived. Sure, we’re encouraged to be self-effacing, but tentative women are less likely to be seen as suitable for higher paying or more challenging jobs. As they say, "Well behaved women seldom make history."

Do you believe women tend to apologise more than men partly because we are more empathetic?

Yes! I think that’s true. Women tend to be more collegiate in their approach to problem-solving. So, there is an impulse to be more inclusive, and not to be seen as dominating the conversation. There’s a wonderful technique that’s being used by some women in meetings now to ensure their ideas are aired and that women get an equal opportunity to speak.  It’s called ‘amplification’. If a woman in a meeting presents an idea or an interesting point of view, another woman in the meeting repeats that idea and gives the originator credit for it. When a woman has the floor, she can also throw to another woman, “What do you think, Julie?” or “Sue made a great point about this last week. Sue?” The great thing is that male allies can do this too."

Is this about women feeling like we’re imposing in conversations instead of contributing? Do we feel we’ll get a better response if we’re saying “sorry” a lot?

I think women have a lot of trouble saying “no”. My work schedule certainly suggests that. We know what it feels like to be overburdened because we’ve said “yes” to everything, and we project that onto other people; we don’t want to overburden them, and we like to be polite and empathetic. We’re trying to build in an ‘out’ for them. It’s a kind of social smoothing. But it’s good to remember that it’s OK to have an opinion, or to ask someone for their time or advice. They’re perfectly capable of saying “no” and, if they’re not, it’s not your responsibility. You don’t have to apologise for interacting with people.

How do we go about putting an end to the “sorry” reflex? 

Along with my friends LJ Loch and Louise Pasquale, I train women in media presentation and public speaking in our business, Outspoken Women. We film women speaking then play it back and give constructive criticism. After some intensive training in speaking techniques, we ask them to have another go. The transformations are amazing. I’m proud to say that at each session we run, we offer two full scholarships to culturally and linguistically diverse women, survivors of domestic violence and marginalised women.

I’d also recommend Tara Moss’ brilliant book, Speaking Out – a handbook which shows women how to speak out safely and confidently. Tara talks about the ‘sorry’ syndrome and other vocal habits in her book. I’m a firm believer that women shouldn’t have to "change" to be treated equally or with respect. But saying ‘sorry’ and some of the vocal habits associated with that are a symptom of being conditioned, almost from birth, to be "good girls" and to take up less space. We want young women to take up lots of space, be very noisy and to bowl us over with their self-confidence. So, I think it’s worth checking your speech or your writing to see if you’re not coming across to others with the confidence you have. The first step is to know you’re doing it - and then just mentally check yourself when you do. It’s a habit, that’s all, and one that’s not all that difficult to break.

Have you ever noticed yourself unnecessarily apologising?

All the time! As I said in my memoir, The Good Girl Stripped Bare, we were brought up to be "good girls: - that teaches you to be compliant and apologetic and, above all, likeable. When I was fired from my job as a newsreader at Channel 10 because I was a mother and getting a bit older, they wanted me to say I’d quit for "family reasons". That was the moment I decided I wasn’t going to be "the good girl" any more. I got angry and decided to stand up for myself. I was told I’d never work in television again. They were wrong. And I’ve found the more I drop the good girl act and just be me, the more successful, and comfortable in my own skin, I’ve become. You know, we just have to stop trying to be the person we think we ought to be and just be who we are. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

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