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Sorry, but I'm not sorry [Commentary]

Columbia University

Balancing books and coffee, untangling earphones, calculating how many minutes until I'm late for class — I am a college student on a Monday. I hold my breath as the elevator takes me to the ground level of my dormitory. Leaning forward in anticipation of the opening doors, I nearly collide with the figure standing directly in front of the elevator. Instinctively, I murmur "sorry" and press against the wall to let him pass.

It is common courtesy to allow people to exit before entering. Yet with the many small interactions I have everyday with other students, a minor incident of elevator discourteousness hardly seemed a big deal. I hold no grudge against this person, for surely I unintentionally commit similar small offenses. Truly, it was neither his fault nor mine.

Yet why did I apologize? To be quite honest, I was not sorry in the least; I had the right of passage, after all. Yet there I was, apologizing for being in his way. I began to realize that the real offense was not his obstruction of passage, but my apology, specifically the automatic way in which I gave it.

"Sorry."

I started to think of the number of times I utter this small word on a daily basis. For some, saying sorry is difficult because it is equivalent to admitting wrongdoing and taking responsibility for one's actions. After my encounter, I became more aware of my tendency to apologize for small incidents, especially things over which I had no control. It was a false sorry in the sense that I was apologizing for something that wasn't my fault.

"Sorry" was frequently the first word I resorted to when faced with anything from to cafeteria traffic to pedestrian bustle. And it wasn't just me; suddenly I was hearing these false apologies everywhere I went, and most of those apologizing were women. Was the higher female frequency simply a coincidence?

A recent set of studies conducted by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross offers an explanation of why women apologize more than men. Ms. Schumann and Mr. Ross attribute the discrepancy in the number of offenses to different perceptions of offensive behavior. Men have a lower offense threshold than women; they generally find situations less offensive, therefore they are less likely to apologize. Women are more likely to sense offense and apologize about smaller issues due to their higher offense threshold.

So what's the big deal? An extra "sorry" never hurt anybody, right? While women being more apologetic might not seem an incredibly important issue, it leads to a decline in respect from others. An apology is an acknowledgment of a wrongdoing. When I ask someone for their forgiveness, they have a sort of power over me. While an apology for not hearing someone or being in their way is hardly a surrender of power, they are small situations like these that slowly diminish the authority of the apologist.

The writer P. G. Wodehouse once said, "It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them." I am not arguing for a boycott of apology, but for a certain sincerity and care with each "sorry" we give. We women strive to be kind and polite, and for the sake of peace and perfection we are too often willing to accept the blame for issues out of our hands.

When we take the fall for everything, we fix nothing, but give others the opportunity to walk all over us. We cannot stand up straight and be respected if we are constantly bowing in apology.

Ellie Dominguez is a 2013 graduate of the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills studying Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University. Her email is ekd2121@columbia.edu.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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