“Sorry,” I say, “Sorry, but would you mind giving me the directions again a little slower? I have a visual impairment and I didn’t see which way you were pointing.”
“So sorry, excuse me for bumping you, I didn’t see you there.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t think to get permission ahead of time, but I’m partially blind, and I need to bring in a friend to help me. Would that be ok?”
I apologize a lot these days. Constantly, almost. I became aware of it when trying to explain to my friend–the one who was trying to be my able-bodied helper — why my attempt to get a spur-of-the-moment accommodation didn’t work. “I didn’t apologize and grovel enough,” I muttered, feeling cynical. “That works reliably. I don’t know what else to do.”
My friend was indignant. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. You should be able to describe the situation, and they ought to accommodate you.” That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But it’s not, in fact, how it works.
For a while, the apologizing was really getting me down. Every time I apologized for being slow, and in the way, and needing extra help, I felt like I was saying, “I shouldn’t have brought my annoyingly disabled self out into the world. My existence is clearly a major disturbance to you, and I’m sorry I’m here making your life harder. I’m sorry I exist.” I’m not actually sorry for any of those things! So why should I have to keep saying it?
Recently, a colleague who is aware of my difficulties pointed me to Amy Schumer’s widely-discussed comedy sketch about women apologizing. In it, all the members of a panel of highly-accomplished women reflexively apologize for every imposition they might possibly be making, from correcting the moderator’s mispronunciation of their names to their very existence on the planet. It made me wonder if a man in my position would find himself apologizing constantly, or whether being male would protect him.
I concluded that a man would probably apologize less, but it wouldn’t make his life any easier. Here’s why.
I apologize in two types of situations. In the first, I am feeling self-conscious moving through the world without the level of physical and social grace I had previously taken for granted. I think women are expected to be more courteous and sensitive to others’ presence, and we often pride ourselves on our sensitivity. Consider the phenomenon of “man-spreading.” This telling video of male and female undercover journalists taking up more than their fair share of a subway car shows how men are generally more comfortable imposing on those around them, and they are much less likely to be censured for doing so. When I fail to step out of the way of another pedestrian on the sidewalk because I can’t see how to do it, or I don’t shift quickly to make a path for someone getting off the subway, I feel it as a personal failure, and I take people’s visible and audible annoyance to heart. And they are more offended by my apparent cluelessness or carelessness than they would be if I were male.
On the other hand, the second type of situation in which I apologize is when I need someone to actually do something for me. It can feel humiliating to keep apologizing for needing help, but it usually works. The apology acts as recognition that my disability is imposing on someone, and it casts me as a damsel in distress. Most people feel obliged to cooperate, and many probably genuinely feel more sympathy for me as a woman who is struggling. If I were male, the expectation that I should take care of myself would be higher. I would likely feel more humiliated each time I needed to make a request. There’s no obvious masculine equivalent of “damsel in distress.” I’d have to deal with more resistance in situations where I need help, which would make me even less willing to ask. I also suspect that as a woman, I have less expectation of being treated fairly than do most men who share my status as a middle-class professional. My friend, who was sure I shouldn’t need to apologize, is male. I think if he were in my situation, he’d be more likely to get angry and cause a confrontation if he felt he was being required to apologize unjustly. On balance, my disability would be no easier to handle as a man than it is as a woman.
I have made a certain amount of peace with my circumstance, and my constant instinct to apologize. To some degree, I’m developing a thicker skin. I’ve decided that I will no longer take responsibility for stepping out of the way of oncoming sidewalk traffic, and I’m not sorry. We pedestrians are all in it together, and I have stepped around others for decades now. It’s time for those with more ability to take a turn. They might be annoyed, but they’ll live.
When I do need to say “sorry,” I try to think of it as an expression of sympathy rather than apology. Just like when a flight is delayed by a thunderstorm and the pilot announces, “Sorry folks, but it’s going to be another hour before takeoff.” The pilot isn’t taking responsibility for the weather; he is expressing his sympathy with us and soothing our feelings. I can certainly sympathize with how annoying my partial blindness can be. If it’s inconveniencing you, just think how I feel!
I also sometimes think of an episode from my childhood, when a neighbor marched her son to my door to make him apologize to me, after she’d heard he had been shoving me on the way home from school. Not surprisingly, it was not the most earnest apology in the world. The next day he whispered to me, “I’m not really sorry—I had my fingers crossed!” When I feel forced to beg and grovel and apologize for a reasonable accommodation for my disability, I’m inclined to do it, but I may just have my fingers crossed behind my back.