It was on the slippery bank of the Thorofare River in Denali National Park that I realized I was tired of apologies. I was on day two of a backpacking and camping trip through Alaska, traveling with a friend I’d met just a year earlier. She was an avid hiker, and we were often up for similar adventures – so when, on a whim, she invited me on a trip to the 49th state, I said yes. She was adventurous and active, but a bit more reserved than me when it came to making safety calls, so I figured we’d help each other find a balance between courage and caution.
But it was in Denali, heart pounding as I tried not to eat it in on the muddy rocks, that I got fed up.
“Sorry,” she called down to me. “I just don’t feel safe going down that way.”
As I carefully put one sideways foot above the other and braced myself against my slipping trekking poles, I imagined myself careening down onto the rocks below. I imagined my ankle twisting, breaking, and having to hunker down to wait out the hailstorm until morning. I thought, I don’t feel safe, and I made a bad judgement call by trying to take a shortcut. But instead of saying this in response to my friend, I gritted my teeth and said, “It’s fine.” When I was back up on the ridge and we were trudging through the overgrown, damp brush, I voiced my frustration.
“You are apologizing too much,” I snapped. “You don’t need to apologize for not feeling safe.”
My travel partner had been contrite earlier in the day when calling me out for walking carelessly over a rocky section of our hike. She’d atoned for asking me to carry part of the tent that we’d be sharing. Later in the trip, she’d express remorse for negating a less-than-optimal spot I picked for our tent. I was tired of hearing the “S” word.
She apologized again, and said she didn’t want to hold me back. I told her she wasn’t; if anything, she was keeping me safe. I asked her, please, to not apologize any more. We were in this trip together, and I needed her rational decision making to keep me alive in the backcountry.
And that was all I said.
What I didn’t do was take blame for the bad decision, or accept that my eagerness had clouded my judgement. I didn’t thank her for seeing a risk that I missed, or even apologize for leading us astray. Instead, I allowed myself to believe this false narrative: I was the brave adventurous one, and my friend’s fear held us back. Because she had apologized, I made her the scapegoat, and justified the transfer of blame. Her overuse of “sorry” gave me licensing to invent something that deserved an apology.
Did I feel safe going down the riverbank in Alaska? No. Was she making the right call? Yes! So, what was with the apologies?
This is an ongoing issue with women. We apologize far too much, often when it’s entirely uncalled for and redundant. As in the case of many of my experiences, we even apologize for someone else’s error. The result of all this sorry-so-sorry talk is that we can come off as indecisive, uncertain, and timid.
I am not exempt from this. I myself have fallen prey to the cyclical sorry-mongering. The very first date that I went on with my significant other, he commented on my use of the word “sorry.”
“You’re apologizing too much,” he said, almost warily.
“Sorry!” I responded. It was a knee-jerk reaction. But what I’ve come to realize is that this observation wasn’t an insult; it was a call to reflect on my overuse of a submissive phrase. Over the years, he’s gently pointed out the unnecessary reaction of apologizing – either in response to or prior to a potentially dissonant opinion. It’s made me very aware of how I use that rhetoric, and why.
Sometimes, at work, it’ll be when someone else makes a mistake after I’ve given clear direction. “Sorry,” I’ll say. “What I meant for you to do was…”
Other times I’ll repent for sharing my opinion, for fear of seeming too vocal. “I’m sorry,” I’ll say. “But I think that…”
And, like my friend on the side of the riverbank, I’ll apologize in the great outdoors.
“I’m sorry, but I’m too scared to take the lead on this one.”
“I’m sorry, can we just stop for a quick break?”
“Sorry – I think we want to go this way.”
There’s no shortage of articles on women apologizing unnecessarily. It’s widely accepted that women’s thresholds for apology are significantly lower than men’s. I write this not to restate what we now understand to be a cultural phenomenon, and I’m certainly not writing it to berate my friends or scold apologetic women. I’m writing it because, to my friends in the great outdoors who apologize too much, we are a part of the problem.
I have time and time again gotten frustrated when my expertise in the outdoors is questioned, often by a man. Having worked retail in the outdoor industry for over seven years, people – men and women – often ask me for the “expert” on topics such as climbing gear or tents. When I point to myself, their eyes will widen or they’ll look taken aback. The bolder customers will even say, “You know about this stuff?” How can a woman be an expert on the outdoors?!
To be fair, I find this happens most often with men and women of an older generation, or inexperienced outdoorsmen. Most of my experienced hiking and climbing friends know that women absolutely have an equal place in the great outdoors, and I’m grateful for the inclusiveness of the younger outdoor community. But as frustrated as I get when I experience this naïve assumption that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I still set myself up for doubt by apologizing.
The more I apologize, the more unsure I seem. I come across as less confident. So even if I never apologize in my conversation with the mildly sexist 50-something who’s buying his first backpack, past apologies or personal doubt may shine through. I may even apologize for correcting something he thinks he knows, because I fear he doesn’t trust my expertise. And then wouldn’t it be expected for this man I’m interacting with to assume that I really don’t know what I’m talking about? If I don’t seem confident, why should he trust me? I am not accepting blame by saying I deserve to be questioned. I am merely acknowledging that when I don’t own my knowledge, I can’t expect to be treated as an expert. And part of owning knowledge is to own opinions, experiences, and mistakes.
I was frustrated with my friend only after she apologized, and found it in me to pass the blame to her instead of taking responsibility for my stupid and dangerous ideas. This made me realize that I, in turn was doing the same thing when I apologized to my female and male adventure buddies – I was making myself the scapegoat. I was allowing them to come up with a reason to deserve an apology.
Outdoorsy women: own your opinions. Do not apologize for feeling unsafe. Do not apologize for making decisions, or taking the lead down the trail. Do not apologize for feeling vulnerable, or tired, or weak. Never, ever apologize for being in charge, or for making the tough calls. Apologies have their place in the mountains; they’re for misreading maps, misplacing gear, or eating someone else’s snack bag. Apologies are for making amends, not for excusing behavior. Mountains do not beg your forgiveness for their massive peaks and steep terrain, no more than you should apologize for your fierceness. You are a Force of Nature. You are a wild child. You have nothing to apologize for.