Sunday, January 10, 2010

Do women speakers apologize too much?

Can everyone hear me? No? I'm sorry...

I see some of you are cold. There does seem to be a draft in here. I'm sorry...

I apologize for being a little late. There was just terrible traffic on the way here...

I would have liked to bring along some samples to show you during this talk. I'm sorry I don't have them with me.

I was so hoping the dean could be here today. I'm sorry I didn't make the arrangements early enough.

They're not the most compelling opening lines a speaker can make--but these are all actual opening lines I've heard women speakers utter. And they're all apologies.

They have one more thing in common: I've rarely, if ever, heard a male speaker open with an apology. But I've heard enough women speakers apologize their way through a speech's opening lines that I've begun to wonder why. Is it because women feel responsible, as speakers, for the conditions in the room, even those not under their control, like heat, lights and noise? Do they think the audience won't like them as well if they're a little late or a panelist doesn't show up or there aren't enough handouts to go around? Is it just a way to ease into starting a talk? Or does it reflect a more general anxiety about handling a speaking situation?

Some women I've talked to have suggested this is an attempt by women speakers to make sure everyone in the room feels included and comfortable. I'm not sure that's true in the cases I've seen--to my eye, it seems to have more to do with the speaker herself.

So let me ask you: Do you find yourself apologizing at the start of a talk--or see other women speakers doing so? Why do you think that happens?