Ladies, save 'I'm sorry' for funerals

  • Article by: GINA CHEN , Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard
  • Updated: January 7, 2008 - 5:21 PM

Despite years of awareness, women are still more prone to passive speech patterns.

I'm sorry, this is probably a dumb idea, but if you're not too busy and you really don't mind, could you read this article when you get a chance? Oh my gosh, thanks so much. So sorry to bother you. ...

Sound familiar? If you're a woman, it could be you or someone you know. Experts say women are more likely than men to use self-defeating speech that can kill their idea before it gets a fair airing.

Part of the reason is that women are socialized to be nurturers and caregivers, so they learn to put others' needs above their own. Experience has taught them that they shouldn't appear pushy or bossy or too smart; they wouldn't want to make others, particularly men, uncomfortable. Many women use "I'm sorry" to make nice and grease the flow of communication, rather than when they're really at fault.

So they end up with passive speech that makes them appear weak and gets their ideas ignored. The passivity can leak into other parts of their lives.

"It doesn't have to do with gender; it has to do with power," said Judith Selee McClure, author of "Civilized Assertiveness for Women: Communication With Backbone ... Not Bite."

"Traditionally, women didn't have the power -- the economic, the social, the political," McClure said. "We learn our language from the generation behind us ... so being feminine gets tied up with being powerless."

Linda Degus-Barns of Manlius, N.Y., said she often feels herself falling into the passivity trap and offers this recent example.

Her husband treated the couple to a spa day at a resort. They didn't think of eating lunch before they arrived.

Her husband, Marcus Barns, asked an employee if lunch could be brought in from the inn's restaurant.

Degus-Barns was instantly mortified. "I started apologizing like you wouldn't believe," she said. But staff members were glad to arrange for the food.

It can be a tough habit to break. Part of the reason is that women need to strike a middle ground lest they be perceived as aggressive. They are "punished" socially if they come across too strong or too much like men, said Linda Martin Alcoff, director of the Women's Studies program at Syracuse University.

"There are different expectations of male and female," Martin Alcoff said. "The guy is a little bit brash, and the woman smooths things over, and people expect that. If it were the other way around, or both were brash, it wouldn't work. There's this unspoken division of labor between women and men, and it disadvantages women most of the time."

McClure, who has been teaching what she calls "civilized assertiveness" for 22 years and is based in Denver, says women can become less passive. A first step is altering their speech.

She suggests women save "I'm sorry" for funerals or when they're actually at fault. And even for mistakes, she'd advocate using "Pardon me" or "My mistake," because it comes across as less passive.

She also suggests women stop using hedges in their speech, such as, "You probably won't agree with this, but ... " or, "Helen would be a good president, don't you think?"

"You don't speak without thinking, and you present yourself as a competent person," McClure said.

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