“‘I’m Sorry’ is used to denote status as in ‘I’m of less status than you.’ It’s an unconscious establishing of ‘I know where my role is’.”

Why do we sputter out the phrase, “I’m sorry” whenever we unwittingly find ourselves in the same space as others? Are we sorry for existing, taking up space, or choosing to be there at that particular moment of interaction? Since my initial post on Impact Hub Boston’s email listserv GroupBuzz, where I posed my query to women, men have also confessed their trespass in terms of this dreaded faux pas and, like their female peers, want to banish it.  But what does “I’m sorry” truly mean? Is it just a sociably  acceptable cultural norm that really means “excuse me” or is there more to this knee-jerk reaction that is performed involuntarily?

“Even in the animal kingdom, the dominant elephant takes up a lot more space. We learn culturally that we’re not the dominant elephant.”

We hashed out this issue over Member Lunch and determined that American culture is the common denominator of why some see themselves as less or why others choose to be the dominant elephant, flap their ears and take up space. And although women were the main receivers of subservient thinking, men weren’t that far behind–the difference being they had a higher bar about what they should be sorry about than women.

“I use ‘sorry’ a lot to mark my role. When I’m emailing a superior, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry to bother you but…’. It’s just a way of cushioning down what you want.”

“I also use the word ‘just’ in the same way as ‘sorry’ where I’ll say or email, ‘just checking in or just saying hello.’”

These are comments from two female Hubbers, but another woman member wrote to me of the “manspreading” phenomenon she’s noticed at Impact Hub, where our male counterparts take up more space on the working tables unlike women who more often stay within the boundaries of a one-person space. In a community where physical space-sharing is the goal, she asks, “Who feels entitled to take up space and why? What message does man-spreading send and how can women take up more space?”

Such a question speaks to our internal balance or lack thereof between the masculine and feminine forces within. Women may be more receptive but can lack aggression when it’s needed while men more likely are imprisoned within a societal definition of masculinity, denying the much needed feminine side. Despite our awareness, the “I’m Sorry” button seems stuck in the PLAY position, a button controlled by our inner critic. “Pressing the STOP button means figuring out what the inner critic is saying and reminding ourselves of the truth,” a Hubber enlightened us with who works with women on these very issues.

“You could say “I’m  Sorry” 50 different ways but what you’re really getting at is not the words but what’s really going on socially.”

Then what is really behind the “I’m Sorry” cultural movement in America that’s been ingrained in us? The Hubbers at Member Lunch dug in and unearthed radical truths we’re still learning to sit with. Naming our truth meant acknowledging how uncomfortable we are in our own skin and with touch. “In America, we are conscious and even possessive of ‘my space’ where touch is both alien and personal.”  This led us even further down the rabbit hole of how awkward we are with silence, with not saying something and being comfortable in that space of silence.

“People judge you as sheep if you don’t respond immediately. It’s a power-play, an assessment of how smart and strategic of a thinker you are.”

“It comes down to looking for outward validation and not being comfortable with inward validation. We keep looking for external feedback.”

So how do we adjust this behavior? “A paradigm shift has definitely happened in this conversation,” a Hubber pointed out but I wondered what steps can we here at Impact Hub take to enforce that paradigm shift? How do we not only keep stimulating awareness but actually exact change? It was clear that some of us were aware, one or two had changed their behavior, but most people are unable to self-assess in the moment and redirect themselves in the face of conditioning. It was clear, in order to change and make it contagious, we need our community. It is here at Impact Hub where this cultural change must begin, where we can start to be more mindful of ourselves and mindfully interact with others. Let the revolution be birthed in the kitchen and in the common areas, where we respectfully make the other who is apologizing unnecessarily aware and assure them that they don’t need to be sorry. Let the revolution take hold at Member Lunch where we choose to sit shoulder to shoulder and share our meals with another. A revolution that will spill out from the 15th floor, influencing and transforming our interactions with peers, friends and family. Most importantly, let’s keep naming and sitting with our truth, embracing our whole self allowing discovery of self and other in this human community.