I went to Berlin a few weeks ago and it was great. What wasn’t so great, however, was my grasp on the German language – I learned it for two years in school and have forgotten everything, so probably the most accomplished sentence I can string together in the fine Deutsch tongue is “ich habe ein poodle.” I don’t even have a poodle.
In Germany, even simple phrases like “excuse me” and “thank you” eluded me until I got used to them, but what I found most striking was my massive reliance on a different word I didn’t know. My massive reliance on saying ‘sorry.’
I first noticed this when a guy bumped into me on the U-Bahn. My first instinct was to apologise to him for being in the way, but as I opened my mouth I realised I didn’t have the word. I felt bad and rude for not saying it, even though he didn’t either. I even looked it up on my phone afterwards. And from then on, I noticed all of the instances where I would, in England, have said ‘sorry.’ In Germany, I only had uneasy silence and a face which tried to say what my mouth couldn’t. By the time I got home, that silence was heavy, and my face ached.
I say, think, and feel ‘sorry’ a lot. Sometimes, it’s reasonable. “Sorry I’m late.” “Sorry I missed your call.” “Sorry I broke your mug.” Other times, it isn’t. I constantly say sorry because of other people’s mistakes, as well as my own. I punctuate expressions of feelings and opinions with apologies, as if to suggest that you don’t have to take my thoughts seriously, because I don’t either. Rather, I’m kind of embarrassed of them.
During confrontation, I am usually the first person to apologise. I think, in this respect, I am like a lot of other women. Because women, you see, are conditioned to be sorry. We are raised our entire lives to wallow in ‘sorry,’ to absorb it, to live it. Women have to be sorry for everything. If our bodies take up too much space, or if they don’t look how they’re supposed to, it’s expected that we show we’re sorry about it by ensuring that they measure up soon. If our speech is too loud, we are told so, and we are expected to act sorry about it, even when we aren’t sorry. If our emotions are too strong, we are shamed with accusations of insanity and made to feel sorry for being human. Patriarchy chastises us; it makes us apologise simply for wanting to be heard.
This apology can come in many forms. It is not a literal ‘saying sorry.’ It can mean being quieter, being less self-confident, being less yourself. It saps your very essence; it turns you into something you are not, this constant state of sorry. It hangs over you, making you feel as though you don’t deserve things that you have earned.
‘Sorry’ makes it harder to express yourself. It endows women with a self-consciousness that I have seen in few men. We are always anticipating our own slip-ups, always ready to utter the sibilance which will absolve us from seeming stupid or rude or uncaring. Even though we are good enough, the ‘sorry’ that we wear draped over our shoulders like an ugly, heavy fur makes us certain that we are not. We really shouldn’t be here. We’re sorry.
The very worst thing about ‘sorry,’ though, is that it is so insidious that we cultivate it within our own selves. We inscribe it on our hearts, constantly striving for a standard which we have not set, and which, overwhelmingly, does not benefit us. We are our own greatest critics, obsessed with our own behaviour and weighted by its potential implications. ‘Sorry’ makes us so disappointed in ourselves, because we feel as though we are constantly letting ourselves down by failing to reach impossible pinnacles.
I have written ‘we’ here because I know I am not the only one. I want to get better at refusing to apologise for myself – for my words, my opinions, my looks. I want to not have to seek approval, but I want to feel as though it is okay when I do. I want to shrug off the air of apology that never leaves me, even when other people don’t notice it. And I hope that one day, my English can be as empty as my German; I hope that one day, I won’t need a word for ‘sorry.’