If you are a woman, you can probably recall some point in your life, whether in a classroom or work setting, when you have raised your hand or asked a question to a superior and prefaced the question with “Sorry, but …”
As women, we are taught to believe that when it comes to expressing our views and asking questions, we are in the wrong and we should in some way feel at fault for wasting the time of others. It is absolutely astounding to me that while women are made to feel guilty for simply existing and asking questions in an environment that is built to provide answers, men have a natural propensity for expounding information, even when the information is irrelevant or unrelated to the particular topic. I think that the reason the problems exists that creates a divide between the way that men and women speak is because of the societal expectation that men are assertive and to the point, whereas women are taught to behave meekly and timidly so as not to step on any toes.
My acute awareness of the existing problem occurred when I realized that I have a tendency to start my questions the same way as the model I used above. I can only describe it as being a glass-shattering moment for me. I was sitting in my Men and Women: Anthropology of Gender course during the past fall semester and we began by watching the video “‘Inside Amy Schumer’: I’m Sorry.” The video is a skit that includes four successful women in their respective fields on a panel where a male panelist is asking them questions. For each problem that they encounter, such as the panelist mispronouncing one of the professional’s names and the other professional clearing her throat, these women apologize profusely. The satirical take that the video takes helps to reveal a larger problem that I had not noticed until watching it: women apologize even when the situation is out of their control. My realization not only amazed me, but also infuriated me because there is no reason for anyone to apologize for the mistake of someone else, such as the professional in the video apologizing for the panelist mispronouncing her name. It is no different than if a person apologizes for getting upset when someone else insults him or her. Not only is the notion completely absurd, but it also invalidates the feelings of the person who was insulted and makes it appear as though their pain only exists when someone else chooses to acknowledge it.
According to a New York Times article by Op-Ed writer, Julia Baird, the difference in the way that men and women speak exists as a larger issue that is established in the social science field. Baird said, “One study, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and Princeton, found that when women are outnumbered, they speak for between a quarter and a third less time than the men.” The study, “Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation,” is conducted specifically by Christopher F. Karpowitz, Tali Mendelberg and Lee Shaker, who offer a numeric scenario of how often women speak when outnumbered by men. The researchers said, “If men and women participated at equal rates in a five-person group, the average individual Proportion Talk for each gender would be 0.20 (in other words, the average male and the average female would each take 20 percent of the conversation), resulting in a gender gap of 0.” The study continued by explaining, “But in five of the eight conditions, the t-test indicates a statistically significant gender gap (always favoring men).” Baird and the researchers both highlight an important discrepancy and the data conclusively determines that in unequal situations, men are more verbal in conversations.
However, there are ways that we can fix the problem. The first method we can implement is not ending our sentences and statements that we know to be true as questions, as if we are waiting for someone to contradict us. My professor for my Literature of the Holocaust course last semester acknowledged that many of the young women in her class have a proclivity for doing so, as well as apologizing when the situation does not call for it. I think that by asserting ourselves more, we, as women, will not only improve the way that we deliver information, but we will also gain more confidence in our convictions and appear more knowledgeable of the subject that we wish to convey. Another method that is self-explanatory, but effective, is to stop saying sorry unless you have done something wrong. One of the most important realizations that I have come to is that there are oftentimes other words and phrases that are appropriate for a situation to use instead of “sorry.” One that I have integrated into my vocabulary is “excuse me” when someone rounds a corner or more importantly, tries to cut in front of me. In the latter situation, rather than apologize for someone else’s wrongdoing, I simply use the alternative phrase and I leave the situation confidently and with the knowledge that I was polite, but also unapologetic for something that I had no control over.
No one should have to apologize for simply existing. We live in a world that is divided based on how people perceive we should act, but rather than complying to that unreasonable image, we should remind ourselves that most of the time, we do not need to use the word “sorry,” especially when introducing a topic important to us or before asking a question. Women specifically may be viewed and conveyed as “bossy” or “rude” for not submitting to what is expected, but by gradually integrating these new methods into our daily vernacular, I believe that we will see a difference in how men and women speak.