I’m Sorry, but No (Special Bonus Rant: TED Talk Edition)

Once upon a time, a little article about a TED Talk showed up in my recommendations.

I had some thoughts.

I’m leaving in the identifiable information about the speaker, with the reasoning that anyone who has given a TED Talk understands that one downside of the platform is that it can lead unexpected new strangers to disagree with what you chose to say.

And, because I sometimes consider it appropriate to lead with caveats in an attempt to circumvent irrelevant and time-wasting challenges and “what abouts,” I’ll add my standard caveat that although I am discussing an individual person, my goal is to critique the ways in which her advice supports potentially harmful ideologies. It gets a little bit trickier with a TED Talk than it is with a totally decontextualized quote on an image macro, because obviously the person giving their own argument isn’t entirely separable from… themselves.

In some cases, I research the people behind pithy quotes in order to learn more about the context they came from, but I won’t do that here. I don’t know any more about this speaker’s work than what is available in the italic text below, because I am not interested in picking apart her overall scholarship or career. Just the arguments in this TED Talk. Whatever direction she has taken since giving this talk, her life is an active and evolving thing that has intrinsic value irrespective of my frustration with some conclusions she arrived at and presented on a stage in 2019.

That being said, the tone of this post gets caustic, and I am not sorry.

The speaker paints gender with broad strokes, and I tend to respond in kind. I would love to see the response to this talk that focuses entirely on gender essentialism, and that was not the direction I took here.

I’ve included both the content of the article (in italics below) and a link to the  summary of the TED Talk “How Apologies Kill Our Confidence” by Maja Jovanovic.

Let’s do this.

“Think about all the times you use the word “sorry” in a typical day. There are the necessary “sorry”s — when you bump into someone, when you need to cancel plans with a friend. But what about the unnecessary “sorry”s? The “sorry, this may be an obvious idea” at a meeting, the “sorry to cause trouble” when rescheduling a haircut, the “sorry, there’s a spill in the dairy aisle” at the supermarket.”

It’s not necessary to efficiently acknowledge your awareness of the fact that something is mildly inconvenient by using a common word capable of serving exactly that purpose.

This is because words can actually only have one fixed meaning and function at a time, and “sorry” is definitely not used in contemporary American English with a broad range of complex and situationally dependent nuances.

“Unnecessary” sorries (you know, the “embarrassed lady” ones) can only ever convey “I am ashamed of my own existence, and frankly I expect you to shame me for having called attention to the fact that I experience that shame in the first place.”

“Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes the “sorry”s we sprinkle through our days hurt us. They make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.

Jovanovic, who teaches at McMaster University and Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, became interested in this topic when she attended a conference four years ago. The four women on a panel were, she says, “experts in their chosen fields. Among them, they had published hundreds of academic articles, dozens of books. All they had to do was introduce themselves. The first woman takes a microphone and she goes, ‘I don’t know what I could possibly add to this discussion’ … The second woman takes the microphone and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought they sent the email to the wrong person. I’m just so humbled to be here.’” The third and fourth women did the same thing.

During the 25 panels at that week-long conference, recalls Jovanovic, “not once did I hear a man take that microphone and discount his accomplishments or minimize his experience. Yet every single time a woman took a microphone, an apologetic tone was sure to follow.” She adds, “I found it enraging; I also found it heartbreaking.””

How about:

Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes that the word “sorry” is harmful to women because she interprets its phatic function as limited to the reinforcement of outdated dichotomous pragmatic expectations about gender performance. Furthermore, the lady version of those outdated dichotomous pragmatic expectations about gender performance is clearly the wrong version (out of the two options).

She frames her assumption that people who frequently apologize appear small, timid, and unconfident as universal. She is a scientist, after all, so her claim is completely objective and free from embarrassing caveats.

Many men, and also the smartest of women, do not like to hear apologies that they deem unnecessary, and therefore those apologies should be eradicated rather than re-evaluated.

Once when Jovanovic attended a conference, she completely failed to try to interpret the introductory apologies of her female colleagues as normal or functional, so instead of paying attention to their scholarly contributions, she focused on judging the fundamental wrongness of the inferior ways they chose to start talking.

Then she gave a TED Talk about how it was their fault that she didn’t listen to them more closely.

She was angry and sad when she noticed that some women did not communicate like some men. That’s what feminism was for.

It’s not like her whole argument is based on internalized patriarchal standards that are like Ayn Rand, in which efforts at communicative accommodation are like The Communist Manifesto.

…is it?

Or maybe the men didn’t “discount their accomplishments” or “minimize their experience” because they have to be assertive and right all the time or the whole system falls apart.

The repercussions of talking like a lady include being treated like a lady, and we all know that we don’t want that!

No one listens to ladies.

“Jovanovic found the outside world not so different: “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating,” she says. Since then, she’s collected needless apologies from her colleagues and students. One stand-out? “My research assistant said ‘Sorry’ to the pizza delivery guy for his being late to her house,” says Jovanovic. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, we live in a new subdevelopment. I’m so sorry. Did you have trouble finding this place?’”

To paraphrase: “Our habitual communication strategies are habitual,” and for shame!

Also, never apologize to service people. They don’t merit your empathy. Who cares if they had a hard time and you are aware of a likely explanation that simultaneously permits them to save face and alleviate their very real concern that they might not be tipped and/or might be reported to their manager? That jerk of a delivery person should be reprimanded, if anything, or they’ll never learn better!

“We can eliminate the “sorry”s from our sentences — and still be considerate. “The next time you bump into someone,” Jovanovic says, “you could say, ‘Go ahead,’ ‘After you’ or ‘Pardon me.’” Similarly, during a meeting, Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry to interrupt you,’ why not try ‘How about,’ ‘I have an idea,’ ‘I’d like to add’ or ‘Why don’t we try this.’” The idea is to be polite while not minimizing yourself.”

It turns out that there is a solution to this problem we didn’t know we had until someone told us they had a problem with it: just use different (therefore better) words to fulfill the same basic function!

Just be considerate without being apologetic. Understand? It’s obvious, if you’re smart. And you are smart, aren’t you?

It’s true that the functional distinction between “I’m sorry” and “Pardon me” as a response to physically bumping into another person is a little lost on me, but I also recognize that by acknowledging my own uncertainty, I’ve invalidated my perspective and should therefore be treated like an adorable little field mouse squeaking futilely into a microphone.

If anything, “Pardon me” is slightly less polite because it makes an additional request of the bumpee – “I beg that you grant me the favor of your pardon.” Whereas “I’m sorry,” or its colloquial variant “My bad,” more directly acknowledges and accepts personal responsibility. “I totally own up to having done that, and it’s not your job to absolve me.” (Assuming that the apology is clearly coming from the original bumper, or that the origin of the bumping was ambiguous enough for either party to safely assume responsibility.)

I’m also not sure that “Go ahead” or “After you” really comes across as polite in the context of me running my body into someone else’s body.

At best, it seems like a weird attempt to appear magnanimous in spite of having created the circumstances under which that magnanimity became necessary. At worst, it seems like a shady attempt to shift accountability to the bumpee: “Clearly, you were in such a hurry that you weren’t bothered to watch out for where my body was with respect to yours. Take all the space you need, bitch.”

This is getting complicated. If only a single, simple, widely accepted word or phrase existed to bypass all this nonsense. Does a word with such a function exist? I am sorry for admitting my ignorance, and also for apologizing for my awareness of my inferiority, but please remember that my self-confidence has the upper body strength of a newborn kitten.

Anyway, being considerate without being apologetic. That’s where this was going all along.

Jovanovic does not specify the nature of the interruption taking place when she suggests, “I’d like to add” as an alternative to “Sorry to interrupt.”

Is this script meant to happen in the middle of someone else’s words (like a literal interruption) or at a point of transition between speakers? Because describing the apology as “unnecessary” might be appropriate for the latter circumstance, but not so much the former.

SPEAKER 1: “My second point is that -”

SPEAKER 2: “I’d like to add to your first point! How about [x]?”

SPEAKER 1: “[x] was actually my second point. That was super helpful how you inserted it before I could sound like I understood my own argument. Your impatience is an asset to us all.”

The salient point here is that SPEAKER 2 never minimized themselves. They were also considerate, and SPEAKER 1 is really not the focus of this illustration.

“The “sorry”s that fill our written interactions also need to be noticed — and banished. For emails, Jovanovic says, “There’s a Google Chrome plug-in called ‘just not sorry’ that will alert you to all the needless apologies.” With texts, she points out, “Every single one of us has responded to a text you got when you weren’t able to respond right away. What did you say? ‘Sorry.’” She says, “Don’t apologize — say, ‘I was working,’ ‘I was reading,’ ‘I was driving, ‘I was trying to put on Spanx.’ Whatever it is, it’s all good. You don’t have to apologize.”

*Due to space constraints, discussion of the ‘just not sorry’ plug-in will be tabled for the time being, but please help yourself to Deborah Cameron’s perspective*

Jovanovic’s advice implies that she always assumes the most negative possible reading of those everyday “sorries.” Communication isn’t a constant act of negotiation and clarification, after all – if you think you know what someone else means, then you probably do!

Condescendingly insisting that “you don’t have to apologize” serves to demonstrate how deeply she misses the point of these “unnecessary” apologies.

“I interpreted your accommodation attempt as an invitation for your own dismissal, and so I summarily dismissed you. After correcting you.”

It’s exactly like at the conference. Jovanich is so distracted by feeling mad about the “sorries” that she completely ignores the purpose of the words that happen around the “sorry.”

And again, she frames her own act of dismissal as the other speakers’ fault rather than owning it as her choice.

If they would just stop apologizing, then of course she would listen.

These people are texting to communicate why they were late: “I’m sorry, I was trying to put on Spanx” is not a literal apology for the misdeed of trying to put on Spanx. The apology is for the lateness, and the Spanx struggle is a reason.

In turn, the function of the common responses, “You don’t have to apologize” or “It’s all good,” is not to say, “I condone your efforts with your Spanx.” The function is to say, “I do not begrudge you your minor delay.”

Or “I accept the legitimacy of the reason you gave for your lateness.”

The obtuse emphasis on the presence of “sorry” negatively affects the interpretation of the rest of the exchange.

If I texted a friend, “Sorry, I was [doing a thing],” and they texted back, “It’s all good,” I would feel reassured that my friend was understanding about my delay. But her explanation of the function of the response “it’s all good” seems different.

It seems more like when she says “It’s all good,” she actually doesn’t mean, “I accept the validity of your reasons, whatever they are,” (read: reassurance) but rather, “I don’t care about your reasons, full stop – why are you telling me this?” (read: impatience).

Now, it may seem that saying words capable of implying that you accept the validity of people’s reasons also kind of entails your implicit acceptance of the ways they chose to explain those reasons.

And therefore, it may seem like Jovanovic is arguing for exactly the same end game as those “unnecessary” sorries, but with fewer words.

“And, in some of the instances when we’d typically throw in a “sorry,” we could just use the two magic words: “thank you.”

Jovanovic tells of the moment when she realized the effectiveness of gratitude. She says, “Four of us were at a restaurant for a work meeting, and we’re waiting for number five to arrive … I put my sociological cap on, and I thought, ‘What would he say? How many apologies will he give?’ I could barely stand the anticipation. He arrives at the restaurant, and you know what he says? ‘Hey, thanks for waiting.’ … The rest of us said, “Yeah, you’re welcome,” and we all just opened our menus and ordered. Life went on, and everything was fine.””

That late man is a true inspiration. We have so much to learn from him and how his confidence makes him so adept at conveying meaning.

Context doesn’t matter, after all.

Whether he’s habitually late is immaterial. Whether his lateness genuinely impacted anyone else’s schedule, or if it was just a minor and temporary inconvenience, does not need to be part of the non-apology picture here.

“Another time when “thank you” can work better than “sorry”? When you’re with a friend and you realize you’ve been doing all the talking. Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry for complaining’ or ‘Sorry for venting,’ you could just say, ‘Thank you for listening,’ ‘Thank you for being there’ or ‘Thank you for being my friend.’”

That is, “I am assuming your consistent goodwill so that accounting for its occasional situational absence becomes your job to handle on your own time, rather than it being my responsibility to pay attention to predictable reasons why you might get legitimately annoyed with me. Thanks for all the work that I’m passive aggressively reminding you that I expect from you, and remember that if you express any irritation about my venting now, you’re really being kind of an asshole for not graciously accepting my gratitude.”

That expression of gratitude is really a solid strategic diversion to take your friend’s focus away from your own lack of consideration.

That is, what they might wrongly perceive as your lack of consideration.

Because you don’t have to be sorry for talking over everyone all the time, ever. Hashtag girlboss.

If you do actually feel sorry for dominating a conversation with a colleague or friend, for god’s sake, don’t say so. Using words that accurately convey your real inner feelings is not the way to get ahead in life.

“Besides removing them from our own communications, we should tell other people when they’re overdoing their “sorry”s, suggests Jovanovic. You can start with your family and friends — and if you’d like, go beyond them. She says, “I have been interrupting these apologies for three years now. I’ll do it everywhere. I’ll do it in the parking lot, I’ll do it to total strangers at the grocery store, in line somewhere. One hundred percent of the time when I interrupt another woman and I say, ‘Why did you just say sorry for that?’ she’ll say to me, ‘I don’t know.’”

It’s a good thing that she knows a woman when she sees one. That’s definitely a cool way to navigate the world when your career is knowing things about people and how they are. 

“Without accounting for the weirdness or inappropriateness of my own imposition, I literally interrupt strangers from accomplishing whatever routine thing they were trying to do without the assistance of my opinion, and use the natural confusion and discomfort apparent in their most common response (“I don’t know”) to shame them in my data for first communicating wrong and then not understanding how fundamentally they had been failing at communicating. With an aggressive stranger. By using language in a way that came to them naturally.”

This llama pausing in mid-chew to give some serious side-eye, as though it had been minding its own business until it was interrupted by unsolicited advice, is exactly how I imagine my face looked when I read that original paragraph.

“Why did you just say sorry for that?”

Because it’s a common fucking script and I sometimes want to let other humans know that I’ve acknowledged their existence even though I’m more busy with living my own damn life. Sorry if you didn’t want to hear one of the words that my brain came up with just now, stranger.

Snark mode off (or at least significantly dimmed):

In some cases, my responses above are just as problematically reductive as the original argument, but this blog is also a space where I hope to demonstrate the necessity of complexity and nuance by artificially removing them.

I agree that careful reconsideration of unquestioned language practices is often valuable and sometimes necessary.

Situations exist where alternatives to “sorry” (including “thank you”) can be genuinely useful, and it’s fair to reflect on why some people seem to feel compelled to basically apologize for their existence.

There are some interesting questions to explore with respect to the frequency and distribution of some kinds of “sorries” and whether that correlates with gender (but actually, like, all the genders, and I don’t think we have access to many accurately-coded data sets to assess that).  

The blanket advice that people whose voices are often silenced are responsible for modifying their already adaptive language habits in order to “earn” the right to be respectfully heard is a bullshit argument put forth by people who don’t want to bother to listen.

Sorry, but my self-aware and elective apologies are not going anywhere just to make pedants feel less compelled to correct me. If you go around worrying about whether people’s “sorries” seem unnecessary, it might not hurt to ask yourself whether your opinion is all that necessary to them.

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