Five young women are standing at the front of my class, representing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder running a pseudo-press conference to answer questions about the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
For ten minutes, they have to answer to the rest of the class, which poses as hostile reporters unabashedly asking questions about the political scandal behind the crisis.
This is Crisis Communication.
The discussion intensifies as we, the reporters, accuse Governor Snyder’s communication team of being in cahoots with his corrupt politics.
I raise my hand to direct a question at one of the representatives who hasn’t yet spoken.
“The toxic water is primarily in neighborhoods of residents in racial minorities. Did Governor Snyder knowingly let conditions get so bad in those neighborhoods because he’s racist?”
She takes a deep breath, during which I whisper “sorry!” from the corner of my mouth.
The class chuckles. We’re all friends here, and we hate making each other take the heat.
She answers my question with poise despite the pressure, and moves on to the last few minutes of the simulation.
Our fearless professor takes the podium at the end of class while we pack up our books and laptops.
“Before you leave today,” she said, “I want to talk about something I heard during class.
From this point on, there are two words that are never welcome in my class again. They are ‘I’m sorry.’ I know you all like each other, and you empathize with those who are up at the podium, but what you don’t need to do is apologize for doing your job. Especially not for doing your job well.”
We are an entirely female class, not just because of the student gender ratio at UNC, not just because Public Relations is an increasingly female major, but because women are more likely to feel the need to take a class on crisis management than men. While more women than men enter the PR industry, it is still men who hold more of the upper-level management positions, and are more likely to be a spokesperson on behalf of an organization during a crisis.
Taking this class is part of how we change that.
Our professor continued, “In the real world, if a man had asked a hard-hitting question, he never would have apologized. He’s not worried about looking mean, or hurting feelings; he’s only concerned with getting the answers for the story. He cares about doing the job well. And so should you.
You are all women who are about to enter the professional world, and you don’t need to be sorry for how smart, and driven, and deliberate you are. Don’t apologize for doing your best. There’s no shame in it.
‘I’m sorry’ only puts you at a disadvantage. You don’t need that.”
The discussion over female apologies gleaned attention earlier in the year when comedian Amy Schumer included a sketch on her TV show, during which an all-female panel spent the entire time apologizing instead of highlighting their professional work. Editorials from Cosmopolitan and Refinery29 challenged women to count the number of times they apologize in a day at work. Gmail even offers a plug-in that prevents you from sending emails with the phrase “I’m sorry.” The point is, this isn’t news. We know we shouldn’t apologize so much.
So how do we stop?
The answer, in my opinion, lies much deeper than eliminating one phrase from our vocabulary.
In order to stop saying sorry, women have to stop being sorry.
It’s a huge change, but it can be done in small steps, provided that we make an active effort.
If you need a place to start, begin by helping others to be confident and self-assured. It’s contagious. The more you diminish others, the more they diminish themselves. The same is true for the reverse.
Apologizing is a symptom of feeling small. At work, at school, online, at home, it’s easy to compare yourself to others, or to put their needs ahead of yours. You’re not alone in this, but you are the only one who can change your disposition.
Be confident, be proud, be self-assured that you don’t need to start every sentence with an apology. Know that your ideas, your preferences, your emotions are uniquely yours, and that is reason enough to assert them without feeling timid.Take ownership of that.
Don’t be sorry. You can’t kick ass at your job and be sorry about it.
You have to choose.