I recently experienced a developmental leap.
A lot of people think they only happen to babies when they gain new cognitive skills – but I’m now convinced adults can have them too.
It started when I found myself apologising to my Uber driver who was going the wrong way.
I was heading to work at peak hour when our car began crawling onto the freeway (my office was straight ahead and most certainly not via the freeway).
I’d known we were in the wrong lane for a while but I chose not to say anything, as if heading in the wrong direction was a better alternative than being the Annoying Backseat Driver.
I have a shocking habit of waiting for someone else to be the bad guy – to leave my fingerprints off any potentially awkward social interactions.
On this occasion, that ‘someone else’ was meant to be the Google Maps lady but she was on mute, replaced by a breakfast radio quiz naming things starting with ‘K’ (hint: the answer is always ‘Kardashian’).
LISTEN: How to cancel plans without looking like a jerk. Post continues after audio…
I would have to do the dirty work myself.
“Sorry, I think you actually need to pop into the left lane,” I said, apologetically. Almost like a question.
Like many women, I’ve been a prolific Sorrier for years. When I was 16, my singing teacher stopped a lesson halfway through to berate me for my incessant apologies whenever I mucked up a note (which, when you’re trying to fit a Norah Jones vocal range into an early-2000s Christina Aguilera power ballad, is exactly every two minutes).
Since then I’ve had a heightened sensitivity to the ‘s’ word but too often one slips out before I can catch it.
But on this particular morning, my default response – to immediately apologise – wasn’t what jarred me the most. It was all the other, seemingly insignificant buffer words I’d peppered through this one little sentence, and upon further reflection, so many other sentences, every single day, for as long as I can remember.
Words like ‘just’ and ‘think’ and ‘actually’, that soften the hard edges. Flowery words. Words I use to navigate tricky situations when I don’t want to be unlikeable, which is all the time.
‘I think?’ Why did I say that? I knew with more certainty than my dad’s middle name that we needed to be in the left lane. And yet, I framed it as if I too was taking a wild stab that maybe, based on some whimsical gut feeling, we needed to follow the correct route to arrive at my place of work, where I travel to frequently.
And why did I double-down with an ‘actually’? As if popular folklore would have you believe turning your phone upside down and following Google Maps that way would lead you to your destination, but in actual fact, it doesn’t.
Then I thought about all the other non-verbal buffers I use – the ‘sorry to bother yous’ and the ‘sorry to be a pests’ that begin so many of my emails.
The ‘justs’ that are thrown in to minimise the inconvenience of even the smallest request.
Even the tone in which I say things, as if I’m tiptoeing around, quiet as a mouse, not daring to disrupt the adults who are simply getting shit done.
Perhaps what struck me most about this interaction, more so than the thousands of near identical ones before it, was the fact that the driver wasn’t apologetic at all.
He politely acknowledged my directions, threw his indicator on and carefully weaved us back on track. But not a ‘sorry’ was uttered.
Did I think he was rude for not apologising profusely, as I would have done in his position? No. No one died and I got to work on time. So why did I set different expectations for myself?
I can’t imagine any of the men in my life delivering anything like the highly qualified sentence that came out of my mouth.
They’d say: “Mate, you’ll need to get in the left lane.” Simple – and with 25 per cent less words used. Over the course of a lifetime, that character count adds up.
But I could never be that direct. Not to a stranger. It’s too assertive, too ‘unladylike’ to come naturally.
Did I really think the driver would hate me for speaking up and did I really care if he did?
So where does it begin? As a child, I was complimented for having good manners and told I was ‘sweet’. Am I subconsciously trying to maintain this persona decades later because that’s what little girls are – polite and sweet?
Since my developmental leap, I’ve been making a conscious effort to write less flowery, more word-efficient emails at work. To clean out the ‘buffers’. Smiley emojis at the end of sentences are now strictly reserved for in-person interactions, with my actual face. ‘Sorry to bother yous’ are off the table and there just isn’t enough time for ‘justs’ anymore.
Listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud here, where we discuss everything from space, to o bikes, to Barnaby Joyce. Post continues after audio…
Emails that read “Hi, sorry to be a pest but just checking to see if you’re still free to catch up at 3pm? If not, let me know and we can rearrange,” have been whittled down to: “Hi, are we still on for our meeting at 3pm?” That’s 29 words down to 10. Look at me with all this spare time!
I’ve also vowed not to apologise for existing when someone bumps into me on the street and to stop pretending like I’m unsure of something when I actually am sure, to save the other person’s face or avoid conflict.
I would be lying if I said this approach comes naturally. I’m second-guessing myself constantly. Can you go from being a flowery sentence person to a direct sentence person overnight, or is there a transition period? Will I sound like a bitch? Will they think something’s wrong at home?
These are actual questions that cross my mind.
It will take more than a few weeks to retrain my brain that simple and direct does not maketh a bitch, but I’ll keep at it, if nothing else but to be kinder to myself.