Sorry for what?

Prompted by the recent title of Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s book (and, I’ve subsequently discovered, the book shares a title with a Demi Lovato single and a bio by an actor from Glee), the prevalence of the phrase “Sorry, not sorry” has got me noticing how many times women I know say ‘sorry’.

About everything.

And I (kind of) know myself. So me too.

The most interesting part of this noticing is how men don’t do it. The gender disparity is stark. We women constantly, frequently (over)use the word ‘sorry’. And this might seem an innocent habit but for the fact that tied up in the word is some tacit assumption of responsibility (whether guilt-driven or otherwise) for the situation about which we are saying ‘sorry’.

We use ‘sorry’ to:

  • express sympathy for something that happened to someone else, at another time, in another place (ooh sorry about that)
  • calm frayed nerves in a tense or stressful situation, even if it was not of our making
  • soften what we are going to say next when we disagree, or ask forgiveness, as if the truth coming out of our mouths must be sugar-coated for the receiving to hear it, or we are not allowed to ask for something we have every right to (I’m sorry but…)
  • to signal an interruption (instead of saying excuse me we say sorry)

An example: a friend invited me back to his place for a glass of wine the other day after we had walked the dog in the forest. I asked at least twice if this was going to work because it would involve my (rather energetic, rambunctuous) dog coming into his house, and potentially upsetting his cat. I was assured that it was not a problem, the cat would be ok, the dog was welcome.

After a pleasant evening of pizza, wine and chatting, I bundled the hound into the car and drove home. I messaged to say ‘thank you for a lovely evening’, and the response message said that “the cat is terrified” (clearly at the smell of a strange hunting dog in its homespace).

My instinct was to say “oh I’m sorry”… as if this was somehow my fault. It was my dog after all. Now be honest, girls… would you also have felt guilty? I did. I like cats: I don’t like the idea of a little critter being afraid. But it wasn’t my fault. I asked and checked (twice) and was assured it was ok: if anyone is responsible for the cat’s distress, it’s my friend who made the decision. So why do I feel guilty and responsible?

I noticed this urge to say “I’m sorry”, to assume responsibility for what had happened. I had to fight it… so instinctive, so habitual. And I realised how much responsibility I have been assuming, my entire life, for other people’s decisions and their consequences. There are times, too, I think that my assuming responsibility for other people’s decisions has also led to my expecting them to take responsibility for mine. Like I want someone to help me carry the weight of my mistakes. What a mess.

‘Sorry’ to buffer problematic gender relations

The use of the word ‘sorry’¬† is particularly marked in conversations¬†between men and women. The women are saying ‘sorry’ in the ways described above, the men hardly ever do. What are we signalling to menfolk, when we take this disproportionate responsibility for decisions, sweep up the mess behind them, whether as their partners, their mothers, their daughters (yes… I often cleaned up the detritus of my father’s decisions in the form of my mother’s emotional fallout. “I’m sorry Dad, but I don’t think Mum’s ok with that”).

Another example: a friend was staying with me from out of town for a little while to do some work. She was carless and not too flush, so ubering everywhere was not ideal. Her partner was struggling to fetch her due to his car being damaged by his (rather inconsiderate) younger brother who had not gotten his ass in gear to fix the damage and restore the vehicle to use, inconveniencing everyone in the family who needed the wheels. On her last day with me, my friend and I are sitting in my home trying to convey to two men who are completely unaware of the consequences of their actions that we now can’t do what we needed to do that day (including an important doctor’s appointment) because they haven’t organised themselves. I resisted, furiously, the urge to just say “I’ll take you”, to halt my plans and fix the situation… women once again dropping their priorities and going out of their way to make shit work around disorganised men.

We end up playing broken telephone: “where are you?”… “what time will the car be fixed?”… “please can you liaise with your brother about collecting the car?”… messages go unanswered, undelivered. Eventually I just called up my friend’s partner (interrupting his meeting, which she was loathe to do, understandably) to say “listen: we’re sitting here unable to do what we need to do because you guys have not gotten yourselves organised”. Now my friend’s partner (who is also dear to me) is a nice guy, considerate, kind and generally extremely helpful. He just didn’t know what effects his actions were having, that here we were feeling like we now had to manage his brother because he was in a meeting and de facto ‘uninterruptable’. He was just going on with his day, as he had planned it, not thinking about how that day needed to synchronise with the day of others. Once he realised, he sprung to action to sort the issue out.

This is an important point: I don’t think men don’t tailor their actions to accommodate others deliberately. It’s just that the women around them have been accommodating, adapting, compensating and adjusting for their entire lives, allowing them to continue on oblivious, and we don’t challenge them. We don’t say “no, that’s not ok. That might be what you want, but I want X and we need to find a compromise”. Or “thanks for communicating your plans, here are mine and we have a clash at point Y” and then expect mutual reciprocity in resolving the issue. Rather we say ‘sorry’, capitulate and then mold and adjust ourselves around the worlds of the men in our lives, taking on their shape like water in a vessel, and then feeling completely lost when the cup disappears and we are left spilt out on the floor, wondering what our own form was before we took on theirs.

Resolution: I’m only saying sorry when I’m genuinely remorseful about something I could’ve done better

If I need to get past you because you are blocking the aisle/passage oblivious of other people… I will say “excuse me, please move”.

If something unpleasant has happened in your life for which I hold no responsibility, I will say “that’s awful, I wish that hadn’t happened”. Or “wow, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now. Let me know if I can make you feel a bit better somehow” (if I wish to help).

If I’m going to say something I think you won’t like, I will not preface it with “I’m sorry, but…”. It will be “thanks for letting me know, but that’s not going to work” or “I would rather we…”

If I’ve fucked up, done something inconsiderate, unkind, selfish. Then I will say “I’m sorry”. How many times will depend on the severity of the sin.

And of course, this is not going to be easy. Old habits die hard. But now you know when I say ‘sorry’, I mean it. Sincerely. I know for a fact some people will not like it. Women who are not constantly apologising come across as hard, with rough edges, not soft like we are supposed to be. “Tough”. “Icy”. Whatever. Not my monkeys, not my circus. I’ll take responsibility for what I have done, and not what you’ve done. And I’ll expect you to do the same.

I am tired of apologising for expecting respect. Or just being.¬† You’ll have to get used to it, but I’m not sorry. Sorry for what?

(This was also prompted by how remarkable MaWinnie was. “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry.” Unyanisile Madikizela.)

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I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

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