I’m a woman and I’m sorry (not sorry)


I’m sorry. I think I noticed something about language and gender. Women use language much more timidly than men, don’t you think? Maybe I’m wrong.

Seriously, how many times a day do we hear a woman say, “I’m sorry,” and then start to speak? Almost every time a woman opens her mouth there is some kind of a qualifier attached to her comment, whether it be “I’m sorry,” “I think” or “do you think?” it almost seems as if a woman is never sure of what she is saying.

Why do we do this? Is it because we really aren’t sure or is it because we don’t want to hurt anyone else’s delicate ego by asking a question he or she can’t answer or knowing something he or she doesn’t?

It all comes down to learned gender norms. Women are socially engrained with the idea that we can’t be assertive, we have to constantly have concern and awareness for others’ feelings, and we shouldn’t be know-it-alls.

In our language and in our mannerisms, women are taught to shrink themselves. In her spoken word poem, “Shrinking Women” performed at College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational 2013 at Barnard College in New York City, Lily Myers explores this idea of women becoming more internal while men expand outward.

“I asked five questions in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word ‘sorry,’” she says in her performance. “I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the whole meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”

I asked five questions in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word ‘sorry.’

— Lily Myers

The brutal honesty of her performance pains me because I think we have all been there if we really think about it, especially in a college setting. What it means to be feminine is constantly on our radar — don’t draw attention to yourself, take up as little space as possible and don’t speak up because you’re probably wrong anyway.

Myers goes on to talk about the gender differences between herself and her brother in the performance.

“I have been taught accommodation. My brother never thinks before he speaks,” she says. “I want to say: we come from difference, Jonas. You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in. You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence. You used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb.”

As women we are taught to fade into the background, and even those of us who have emerged can still find the tentative statements in our vocabulary, if we look for them.

I notice it most often in my role as an editor. I never tell a reporter to cover a story. I ask — every single time. “Do you think you could cover this story?” or “Would you like to do this one?” Never do I say, “You’re covering this,” but that’s what I mean.

The fact that I can’t do my job because of the way I have been socialized is kind of a serious problem.

Therefore, I challenge each and every one of you reading this to make yourself notice and count the times in a period of a week that you add qualifiers to your statements.

Jocelyn Gibson can be contacted at [email protected].