If you have to ask for an apology, you probably don't deserve one. Whether it's Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni, asking sexual-harassment whistle blower Anita Hill to apologize for what she did to her husband, or Rand Paul volunteer Tim Profitt claiming that the protester on whose head he stomped owes him an apology (he has back problems, after all), has "I'm sorry" completely lost its meaning?
I started thinking about the phrase "I'm sorry" weeks ago when a friend and I watched the For Colored Girls trailer a thousand times over. In it, Janet Jackson performs "Sorry," one of my favorite poems in Ntozake Shange's play, which makes the case for giving up and getting over it (my mantra at age 30). "I'm gonna do exactly what I want to and I won't be sorry for none of it. Letta sorry soothe your soul. I'm gonna soothe mine." A few stanzas later, the "lady in blue" concludes, "Next time you should admit you're mean, low-down, triflin', and no count straight out. Steada bein sorry all the time, enjoy bein yourself."
That poem and those lines spoke to me at 18 when I read them aloud in my dorm room waiting by a phone that didn't ring until the next day. Obviously he was sorry he hadn't called, something came up, he fell asleep, he got locked out, his buddy needed help doing stuff, he was doing stuff, he was at the library, he was a liar, but he was sorry. And I was even more so for pretending to believe it from so many pseudo boyfriends who could offer up fake apologies with a straight face. Back then, I thought Shange's poem called out all the "low-down" and "no count" men for us women to take note of and get rid of. But these days I think she's calling us out, too.
In the wake of a recent Wall Street Journal story that says on average, women apologize more often and are offended more often, Alison Fairbrother, a contributor to Politics Daily's blog "Woman Up," asked the question, "Should Women Stop Apologizing So Much?" The average person offers up a mea culpa about four times a week, and after cataloging her own contrition, Fairbrother realized she doles out sorrys at least five times a day.
"Apologizing when we haven't done anything wrong, or apologizing for circumstances outside of our control, denigrates our language and denigrates us," concludes Fairbrother. "Apologies are not placeholders. 'I'm sorry' should not be what we say when we're at a loss for words."
In two studies published last month by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, researchers found that men were just as willing to apologize as women if they'd done something wrong. Women, however, think they've done something wrong more often than men do. Women are also more likely than men to be offended. "We don't think that women are too sensitive or that men are insensitive. We just know that women are more sensitive," explained Karina Schumann, one of the study's authors, to the WSJ.
Sensitivity is something I've never had in droves. I blame it on being an only child who, more often than not, had to bandage her own wounds and who rarely played nice. But that excuse ran out once paying the rent replaced the playground as my primary concern. Now I just don't see the point in social tchotchkes like "I'm sorry," especially when they're not truly meant. What would Ginni Thomas have done with an Anita Hill apology? Gone to the bank, the police or back to her porn-obsessed husband?
In Shange's "Sorry," the offender and the offended party are both to blame for all the sorrys crowding a woman's closet. Sure, some "no count" is doling them out, but it was the "lady in blue" who collected them and used them for god knows what — power, self-righteousness, ego fertilizer. None of those things "soothe," as the poem makes clear. From kindergarten on, children are taught that "names will never hurt" them, and that "saying sorry" will instantly dry your best friend's tears after you've stolen her chocolate milk. But that's not always true, is it? Names (or language) can hurt like a fist to the face, and sometimes apologizing does nothing but make it worse.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.