There I was, heading cautiously but optimistically into the unknown waters of 2020, when my cheery greeting of, “Happy New Year!” on seeing a couple I know was met with a hard stare and a rather chilly, “Oh no, it’s much too late for that. You can’t say that to us now.” “Oh sorry,” I replied, my spirits deflating as quickly as the proverbial burst balloon. And immediately I felt like a child being taken to task for bad manners.
And very shortly afterwards, that very same morning in fact, I found myself apologising to a self-service checkout. “Oh sorry, my fault,” I said as, for the umpteenth time, the red light started flashing above the till I was using. Yet again I was guilty of inadvertently upsetting the technology. To tell the truth, I haven’t yet managed to successfully negotiate a basket of shopping through a self-service till without requiring human assistance to steer me through the process and without needing to alert store security.
But once I had made it safely to my coffee date, recovered my composure and chewed the episode over with some sympathetic girlfriends, I got to wondering about just why I feel the need to apologise quite so frequently whist at the same time feeling cross with myself for being such a spineless wimp. When did I turn into such a complete coward and hopeless people pleaser? Why did I so cravenly allow others to admonish me for the unforgivable sin of wishing them well? And why, even at my grand old age, do I still find myself inhibited from shooting something back along the lines of, “Oh stuff you then. Go ahead and have a horrible New Year for all I’m bothered.” And all this angst and self-criticism was happening because of a chance encounter with people I don’t even care that much about.
I’m sure this is overwhelmingly a woman-thing. It’s an anxiety from which the men of my acquaintance simply do not suffer. Indeed, most men would rather have root canal treatment without the benefit of anaesthetic than admit to being wrong. Ever. And the simple word ‘sorry’ seems to stick in their throats like an old fashioned gob-stopper. They sail through life, protected by their smug sense of self righteousness, boosted by a healthy dollop of testosterone, not giving a moment’s thought to the possibility that their words or behaviour might offend others. Much less acknowledging any need to apologise for it.
My Mum-friend tells me that we women are simply protecting ourselves from attack by being so very quick off the mark to apologise. After all, she reckons that at a primitive level what men fear most is being laughed at by women. Whereas what women fear most is being killed by men. Which as an explanation for over-apologising only goes so far if, like me, you readily apologise to other women, to self-service checkouts, to the cat when you can’t decant the food into its feeding bowl quickly enough and to the vacuum cleaner as you struggle to untangle the huge knot you have managed to create in the power cable.
By the way, everybody needs a Mum-friend. She’s the one who tells you the truth but kindly. That yes, your bum does look big in those jeans and that the dark blue, straight legged pair you tried on first were much more flattering. A Mum-friend is effortlessly consoling and so much wiser than you. Not that, in my case, the last qualification for being a Mum-friend is difficult to achieve. Your Mum-friend puts her arm around you when need a hug but puts you firmly back in your place when you are ‘going off on one’ as we say up t’north. She’s the one who always offers to taxi everyone else home, always enquires about ill relatives and would rather die than miss your birthday.
But back to the point, perhaps I and my fellow hyper-apologisers are suffering from a newly discovered condition called ‘toxic positivity’. We are only comfortable when we feel that everyone is on our side. When we are universally liked because others are affirming our behaviour by showing us their approval. We can only function happily when we are presenting an unfailingly positive and up-beat face to the rest of the world. Telling little white lies to keep people happy? No problem. Saying ‘yes’ when ‘no’ is secretly our preferred answer? Happens all the time. Apologising to everyone (and everything!) rather than risk giving offence? Goodness me, we’re black belt professionals at that.
So one small step might be to hold back and to take a moment to consider whether or not an apology would be either helpful or necessary. Whether a non committal shrug of the shoulders or a decisive move away from the situation without further comment – or even the time honoured teenage response of, “whatever” – might not fit the bill considerably better than yet another, “Oh sorry, my fault.”
And so Veganuary be gone. That particular resolution was never going to last anyway with a husband who considers a meal not worthy of the name without some poor animal’s carcass front and centre of the dinner plate. No, my new resolution is to cast off my habit of craven apologising and adopt a far more robust approach to other people (and to truculent technology!) No more automatically accepting the blame. No more doing and saying anything for a quiet life. No more Mrs Nice Guy, in fact.
Wish me well as I adopt my (slightly late!) New Year resolution for as Mark Twain observed, “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them, as usual.”
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