The German language failed me when it comes to the word sorry. While there are words and phrases that convey a similar meaning (entschuldigung means “excuse me” or “pardon me,” and es tut mir leid literally translates to “that causes me sorrow”), none quite capture the meaning of the “sorry” Americans so often insert into speech.
During my time as an exchange student in Germany, I came to the unfortunate realization that the lack of this five-letter word would seriously affect my ability to communicate. Whether it was apologizing to the clueless waiter who had messed up my order, or trying to slip in the word “sorry” before asking my teacher about the lesson plan for the next day, I was constantly struggling to form basic sentences due to this lexical gap. At one point, I even tried apologizing for not being able to apologize.
Frustrated, I mentioned my problem to the other American students, all of whom were male. Instead of empathizing as I had expected, they met my complaint with blank stares: they couldn’t relate at all.
For some strange reason, American women are constantly saying sorry, often for things we aren’t even slightly responsible for. We coat clear opinions and logical statements with a thick layer of empty apologies to the point where the aim of our sentence is lost.
But what makes this problem exclusive to women? Some speculate that women are inherently more polite than men. While this explanation would be relieving, the truth behind this gender difference is much darker. A popular 2014 Pantene ad offered an explanation: each useless “sorry” exists as an attempt to make women’s sentences less obtrusive in a male-dominated world.
Just one conversation in the average American woman’s life proves how true this is. Phrases that are seen as completely normal when used by men are seen as rude and pushy coming from a woman. We regularly apologize for merely opening our mouths, we adopt an overly polite, watered-down way of speaking, and we constantly downplay our power and intellect – all to make ourselves less threatening to men.
After weeks of stumbling through four-syllable German apologies, I finally dropped the word altogether. I began to give clear descriptions of what I wanted and state my opinions directly. You might say I learned to speak “like a man.” The reactions to this were immediate and eye-opening. Suddenly people paid more attention to what I had to say, they were more likely to agree with my opinions, and they began to treat me with newfound respect.
While there are certainly times when “sorry” can and should be used, its overuse by the female population needs to end if we ever want to see real gender equality. So, the next time you catch yourself using a certain five-letter word, try rephrasing your sentence without it. The results might surprise you.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.