First things first: I am a desperate, apologetic, keen person. Even professionally (especially professionally), my emails and messages, of which there are so many more of now we've been stuck in lockdown are couched in apology: "sorry to bother you", "I'm probably wrong but...", "I know you’re busy".
As a freelancer, my job means I have to constantly ask for things: commissions, time with interview subjects, money I’m owed. This means that of the many emails I send a day, most include at least one apology of some sort.
One Thursday, after sending a slew of messages asking people to cover the launch of my zine, I got particularly annoyed with myself for signing off every single one of them: "no worries if not!"
As a particularly seasoned apologiser, I already know I use this phrase as a cheery way to cloak my insecurity and fears that the person receiving the message will have no interest. I’m setting it up pre-emptively, both so that they can reject me and not feel bad, and I can feel like I am less keen.
Angry at myself, I fired off a tweet mocking my emails. It simply read "no!! worries!!! if!!!!!!!! not!!!!!!!!"
Turns out I hit a nerve – it went viral. Hundreds and then thousands of people retweeted it. My phone was still going off with notifications every few seconds while I was having dinner the next evening.
For the most part, the responses I got were from women telling me that my tweet had hit too close to home. While some men did feel seen by the tweet, 100% of the people who didn’t get it were also men. Some women even took the tweet as a sign it was time to retrain themselves to stop saying it, which of course is a good thing; the "confidence gap" between men and women in the workplace is real, and there are plenty of very legitimate reasons why we feel less confident. There is more than confidence between ourselves and success: there are institutional barriers.
I didn’t mean to open such a Pandora's box, really. The tweet was a self-deprecating jab at my own distinct brand of pathetic. I’ve tried to erase it in myself, realising that when my boyfriend asks for work or more money, he doesn’t apologise. He sells himself, without exclamation marks or apology or a "maybe this is stupid but...". Yet sitting and watching my phone blow up, I realised that I wasn’t unique; this lack of confidence in our own worth and ideas extends to most women, especially professionally.
Among the women filling up my notifications were many whom I’ve admired from afar. Great journalists, actors and authors whose worth has been solidly proven by an output of incredible work, and yet they saw themselves in my self-deprecation. Realising that they felt this way too was reassuring, but worrying – when does the self-doubt ever stop?
I speak to Mikaela Jackson, the founder of women’s career coaching service She Almighty. She assures me that this self-doubt is common: "So many women I know and work with lack confidence, harbour self-doubt, identify with imposter syndrome, play down their strengths, focus on their weaknesses and usually aren’t great at celebrating their successes," she tells me. In need of some coaching myself, I ask Mikaela what my overuse of that phrase says about me. "It immediately tells me that this person lacks confidence," she says. "It’s a protection mechanism against rejection with some people-pleasing tendencies too." Ouch, I think, but she's right. "People pleaser" is me down to an unfortunate T.
Leadership and career coach Adrienne Partridge agrees that my tweet contains "unnecessary people-pleasing language". She tells me that when women don't behave in the way society expects us to, we receive backlash. The kind of cushioning language I’d written in my tweet therefore makes me feel protected from that backlash.
Confidence and career coach Jo Painter believes that there’s nothing wrong with using this soft language in everyday life. "For women, a key purpose of communication is to connect and build a relationship, therefore their communication style is softer than men's," she tells me. However, she does add that it has no place in a professional setting.
I should know my worth professionally. My entire income, every single month, is derived from work I’ve written and, most of the time, pitched. My zine, emo diary, which I initially released quietly and self-consciously, speaks for itself by now. Yet no matter how much I try to cut that apologetic language out of my speech, it doesn’t come naturally. When I remind someone they’re trying to pay me £50 less than usual, it is buffered by apologies: "maybe I’m wrong but...". I’m not wrong! I know I’m right! I know I have value! And yet...
I posted the tweet because I was sick of hearing myself apologise and so I ask Mikaela what I can do to keep from being a people pleaser forever. "It can help to identify where [your people pleasing] stems from and in what situations it affects you," she says. "If we can identify the root cause, we can shed light on how it has affected us throughout the course of our life and then look to change the narrative."
Mikaela tells me that breaking down self-limiting beliefs isn’t straightforward, but there is hope: "Question your thoughts with evidence, while changing the narrative around them." Essentially, she tells me to remind myself that I have worth, and alter my language accordingly.
Language, she says, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I say "no worries if not", I’m setting myself up for rejection. Mikaela believes that changing the language to more positive lines like "I look forward to working with you" could make a huge difference to my self-worth and in turn, the outcome of responses. Adrienne agrees. She says that there are three steps to building confidence: "Build your capacity to be resilient, identify your emotional triggers, and set and maintain boundaries." She believes that while our confidence will continuously be challenged by setbacks and rejections, self-compassion will help us to bounce back.
The response to the tweet was initially kinda depressing but ultimately comforting. It reminded me that I am in fact not the only one who is keen or desperate or apologetic. Most women feel the pressure to make ourselves smaller, to apologise for asking for what we’re owed. We feel that we will be considered rude if we are as abrupt and blunt as men. Sadly, that can often be true. I understand that it’s the same impulse that forces me to say "thank you so much!!!" when a man underpays me and to put kisses and smiley faces on emails.
But this experience has also taught me to try harder not to apologise; to remember that I have worth and I have experience that people need. I want to learn to be simultaneously polite and unapologetic; it’s possible. I hope it is, because I don’t want to be 10 years older with the meek desperation of a teenager asking for a lift.
Still: no worries if not!