Taylor Swift: Miss Americana debuted at the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim, before becoming Netflix’s highest-rating original biographical documentary film.
Praised for its “raw and emotionally revealing” look into the singer’s life, the documentary covers everything from sexual assault to politics to eating disorders.
At one point Swift, filmed sitting in her lounge room, speaks candidly about her struggle to “deprogram the misogyny in my own brain”.
“I’m trying to be as educated as possible in how to respect people,” she said.
“There is no such thing as a slut, there is no such thing as a bitch, there is no such thing as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss.
“We don’t want to be condemned for being multi-faceted.”
Swift pauses, before pulling a face, and apologising.
“Sorry, that was a real soap box,” she said, before correcting herself again — “Why did I say sorry? Ugh!”
Off camera, director Lana Wilson can be heard saying: “It’s because we’re trained to say sorry”.
“Yeah, we legitimately are!” enthused Swift.
“We’re like, ‘Sorry, was I loud?’
In my own house.
That I bought.
With the songs that I wrote.
About my own life.”
It is a small but poignant moment in the 85-minute documentary — which, it should be noted, is entirely about Swift, her rise as a performer, and her struggle to “harness the full power of her voice”.
It makes Swift instantly relatable, but it begs the question — if she, with all her success and during a documentary about herself, apologises for sharing her opinion, how should the rest of us fare?
More to the point — and as Wilson alludes to — is saying sorry something women are trained to do?
Women use apologies to cushion their actions
The short answer is, yes, and it’s a conundrum women have been stuck in since the middle ages, according to psychologist Rachel Green from The Emotional Intelligence Institute.
“In England, women used to have a horrible metal implement locked on their head for speaking out in public or for arguing with their husbands, and then paraded through the villages,” she said.
“It was called the Scold’s Bridle and was intended to humiliate women.
“Non-verbally, we have had this [attitude] passed down from one generation to another.
“Even now we will get penalised for speaking out or speaking up, and get called bossy, aggressive or a bitch, whereas a man would be called a leader.”
Traditionally, girls are often raised to value empathy over the “masculine” trait of strength — which means that, in situations where strength or assertiveness is required, women feel the need to cushion their actions with an apology.
“Some women are worried about hurting people’s feelings and causing offence,” Ms Green said.
“It does depend on the level of confidence of the woman, how they have been brought up, their cultural background, their religious background, their personality type, and what role they are in.
“However, even at high level executive positions I have heard women say ‘I am sorry …’ when men in equivalent positions wouldn’t have.
“Our fear of causing offence leaves us open to manipulation, being ignored or not gaining respect.”
‘Sorry, can I sit here?’
The notion Swift and Wilson touch on — that we’re raised to think it’s bad for women to be seen as “bossy” — means that female language is peppered with qualifiers like “I’m sorry, do you mind moving?” and “Sorry, I just have one more question.”
“Some women say sorry for things they don’t need to say sorry for, [and] they say sorry in a way that sounds as though they are apologising for themselves,” Ms Green said.
“I think men do far less of this kind of sorry.”
There are many studies on this subject, but a widely-referenced one by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross found that, rather than men being reluctant to apologise, men and women simply have different ideas about which behaviours constitute an apology.
After conducting two separate studies, Schumann and Ross found that “women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses”.
“This finding suggests that men apologise less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour,” they wrote.
Put simply, women are more likely to think that sharing an opinion or asking someone to move out of the way is cause for an apology; men do not.
Sociologist Maja Jovanovic called this kind of apology-laden rhetoric “confidence killers”.
“Apologies matter, but if you are beginning and ending your sentences with sorry, don’t be surprised if there’s nothing left of your confidence at the end of the day,” she said in a TEDx Talk on the topic.
“You’ve given it away with every needless, useless apology.”
Women can subconsciously apologise with their actions and demeanour, as well.
“I went to a presentation where a woman who was talking about something really important, but everything about her body apologised for being there,” Ms Green recounted.
“She wrapped her legs around herself, she hung onto the table, she squeezed herself in, apologising for taking up space.
“I told her what I’d observed and she said she felt like she didn’t have a right to be there. She’d been invited to speak! But she was trying to make herself invisible.
“I have never seen a man do that.”
Rather than using sorry as a default, Ms Green suggested saying thank you.
“If there’s a wait on the phone, say ‘Thank you for waiting’, not ‘Sorry for making you wait’ — what does that do!” Ms Green said.
“Instead of saying ‘Sorry for complaining’, you could say, ‘Thanks for listening’.
“Think of thank you as positive self promotion.”
If you need a little more help, for users of Gmail, there is also a Google Chrome plug-in called Just Not Sorry.
Downloaded over 33,000 times, the plug-in warns you when you write emails using “qualifying words and phrases” that undermine your message, so you can change your language before you hit send.
Additionally, women should stop apologising for their achievements — ala Taylor Swift, or the woman Ms Green referenced.
Says Jovanovic: “We need to own our accomplishments.
“We’ve been socialised into thinking it’s not ladylike or feminine to be boastful.
“Resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating joke or to deflect … a compliment, and just own it.”
Making small changes to your thinking and your language means that when an apology is warranted, it will mean more.
“Saying sorry is okay, it can be genuine, as long as it’s clear what you’re saying sorry for,” Ms Green said, citing examples like when you hurt someone, or when you offer empathy because someone is grieving.
“There’s just no need to apologise for yourself when there’s nothing to apologise for.”