Claiming Space, Without Apology by Maura Alia Badji
When author/poet/performance artist Staceyann Chin posed a couple questions on her Facebook fan page a few days ago: “Is it just me, or are women several times more apologetic than men (sometimes unnecessarily so…)? And why might that be? And how can we change that?” she got me thinking about something that annoys me in myself and others.
I believe women, especially “older women” (age 65 and up), do apologize, in everyday conversation and general discourse, more frequently than men of all ages.
I also believe that in heterosexual relationships, women apologize more quickly and more frequently than men. (I can’t speak for my GLBT sistren/brethren, but I’m curious if that holds true in most of their relationships as well. I have issued queries and await replies.) Of course, there are exceptions to this and all rules.
What bothers me is that apology has become a sort of verbal tic in some women; I think it’s a way of defusing/deflecting tension in others and in relationships:
I don’t mean to bother you…
Would you mind if I…..
It occurred to me about 10 years ago, when I ended my marriage to my first husband, a very controlling, verbally domineering man, that such phrases are a way of giving personal power away, a way of saying Please don’t pay me any mind, I won’t be any trouble, Please don’t shout.
It seemed, as I found my ears pricking up to note whenever myself and other women did this, that this kind of placating verbiage is akin to softly chanting to the stealthily approaching, proverbial dog with bared teeth: Nice Doggy.
Thing is—verbal niceties don’t stop the biting, especially if the one approaching is intent on biting, and you are mainly intent on demonstrating that you are docile and mean no harm.
In response to Ms. Chin’s Facebook question, another writer mentioned how she hated women apologizing for taking up space: this also troubles me when I see it.
Once, while attending a reading by iconic radical feminist author Germaine Greer, I witnessed a somewhat bizarre non-verbal exchange between an older, physically imposing man and a younger, somewhat smaller woman, who sat near each other in the audience, but apparently did not know each other. He was seated on the far end of the first row next to her, on the right hand side.
As Ms. Greer regaled the small and attentive crowd, the man moved his chair closer and closer to the smaller woman while leaning in, apparently to get a better view of Ms. Greer, and completely oblivious of his trespass into her personal space. Incredibly, he made noises which indicated he was annoyed that she was thwarting his view.
The woman made small movements away from him, but was hemmed in by another woman seated to her left. This went on for some time. Finally, Ms. Greer, who apparently could take it no longer, called out to him to back off and give the woman some breathing room.
Applause actually broke out!
I was pleased Ms. Greer had stepped in to assist, but I felt embarrassed for the woman. Why couldn’t she speak up for herself? Years later, I’m of the opinion that it’s ok to speak up for others who can’t or won’t do it for themselves.
Perhaps with enough “modeling and support”, as I’ve often written in my very young special education students’ IEPs, they will stand up for themselves. I see it as a way of extending community and leading by example.
When I lived in Seattle and regularly used the bus system, I witnessed a “businessman” (suit/briefcase/cell phone) aggressively elbowing a woman he chose to sit beside.
When she finally, silently, pushed back, he viciously turned on her and accused her of being “fat” (she was of average size and he was much larger).
I don’t recall what the woman said, if anything, because another woman and I, who had been exchanging glances during the unfolding drama, both turned our heads sharply at him, side-eyes jumpin’ into full-blown glare, and made some noise. What?! You got to be kidding!?
The “businessman” backed off, but not before snarling at all of us. The woman who had been seated beside him looked both pained and relieved.
As he exited the bus at the next stop, I hoped that the woman he had bullied was heartened to speak for herself, to fully claim her speech and her space.
Before I get several dozen pointed emails from my brothers, I’d like to state for the record that I’m not trying to establish that ALL men choose to communicate/behave as the men in my two examples did.
There are indeed many emotionally functional men in our communities. Hop on over to The Good Men Project and you’ll see writings from a good many of them.
As for me, I’ve been consciously reducing the number of times I start a sentence with I’m Sorry, and I’m more aware of how quickly I jump to placate or apologize for another’s mood or feeling.
As musician/writer/spoken word artist Solidad Decosta once wrote to me, “some people will complain about the shape of air”; I’ve stopped apologizing to them. In a small way, over time it’s been empowering.
This is not to say that I’ve grown emotional calluses, which prevent me from admitting when I’m genuinely in the wrong—far from it. There is grace and blessing for all involved when apology is genuinely offered, and again when forgiveness is willingly granted.
~Maura Alia Badji, who can be relentless when the situation demands.