Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Sometimes, to express unspoken emotions to strangers, I utilize the creepiest of fine-motor skills, the one that makes skin crawl, faces wince, and sexual appetites wither: I cock my head slightly and blink with only one eye. I am a winker.
It's painful to admit as I loathe winking. I've always found it condescending and generally indicative of other unsavory character traits such as being a pick-up artist or taking a class on how to be a pick-up artist. I'm sure this is unfair, but I associate winking with skeevy men. The behavior is akin to bestowing a nickname on someone you hardly know, and I've always assumed that those who do so also bestow nicknames on their loins.
In short, I've spent a lifetime disparaging winkers. And, now — like a family-values politician who cheats on his wife or a homophobic preacher in the closet — I am what I proclaim to hate.
But, I don't mean to wink! It's a recent development that I can't control. It just happens. I'm sure Mark Sanford and Ted Haggard used the same defense, but in my case, it's true. I don't know what I'm doing it until it's done. As if, in the moment, I'm under some Disney-witch spell, which was probably also a Sanford/Haggard defense.
In the midst of a standard exchange with a stranger, suddenly I've winked. Worse, I do it while being obsequious, as if to say, "Contrary to what's implied by my words, I'm actually in control and not pathetic."
"Oh, sorry, you don't do substitutions for French fries? Twist my arm: I'll have fries!" — WINK.
"Oh, sorry, this lot is only valet? I'll look for street parking for 15 minutes and then give up and pay you anyway." — WINK.
Once I realize what I've done, I can't apologize for having done it, because said apology would probably end up in the form of another wink.
Neither can I simply accept this behavior: I'm apologizing for things that don't require contrition, and I do so by executing an action I adopted from others. These are both negative behaviors too frequently exhibited by women, and I've mixed them into a goulash of don't mind me.
But, why? Is it possible I wink in an effort to mitigate the apology? Oh, horror: Do I secretly covet the confidence of skeevy men? No, it can't be. That's what pick-up artists want us to think, and we know they don't adhere to the laws of physics or their leader wouldn't be named "Mystery."
Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
This conundrum required professional help. I called licensed psychologist and Ph.D. Evelyn Pechter, president of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association. To her credit, when she called back, she said, "I'm not exactly sure what you want to ask me." Fair enough. I surely sounded confused. But, don't worry: I, in fact, am.
I explained my behavior. "Commonly, ticks are stress based," she said. "Perhaps in certain situations, you feel stressed and turn to winking, instead of tapping on the table or other idiosyncrasies people might exhibit when they're stressed."
Of course, without learning a great deal more about me, Pechter can't offer a diagnosis or be certain of my behavior's origins, which she pointed out, but still, this stress-based thing struck me as too easy of an explanation. Do I really feel anxiety over French fries? I probed for more information.
Might I be trying to assert power? "That would typically be an intentional kind of wink, one that's within your control."
Perhaps, it's a subconscious mimicry? "It's very common to pick up behavior from people we admire. But, with bad behavior, there's usually something else going on."
Well, I usually do it while apologizing. "Some, both men and women, think apologizing is weak. More often, it's men, but women are beginning to think that as well. Certainly, if people don't want to be apologizing, and still they're doing it out of habit, that could be stressful, and then the wink could be what comes with the apology."
Eureka. I think she's right. It's stress, after all, but not over fries or parking. The trigger is the apologizing itself. On occasion, my everyday actions do warrant contrition — I will eat more than half of anything we share — but I apologize for everything. And, I've only recently begun to notice.
A few weeks ago, at the end of a meal, I rose to visit the ladies' room and asked my friends' forgiveness. My buddy Craig laughed and scrunched his face, saying, "Like we'd just leave you. Like we can't wait two minutes." That was the moment I realized my mea culpas are egregious. Do I really think it such a burden for people to give me 180 seconds to meet an involuntary and totally human need?
You won't have to search long to find a feminist rant, plea, or judgment regarding women’s tendency to overapologize. Saying sorry, critics argue, accepts defeat and blame, and engenders subservience to those (i.e. men) who don't apologize as much. Therefore, women diminish their power before they've tried to exert it.
I also want to be less penitent — but not because I fear disempowerment or being perceived as weak. Rather, I'm simply tired of always being the one who does it. It's exhausting.
I was reared in a Southern, patriarchal society, where men are the messy and bumbling stars, and women, the side kicks who smooth things over in their wake. I grew up in a network sitcom. And, I'm proud of my ability to alleviate social problems, to gauge and manage the emotional experience of a crowd. But, it's also a huge psychological investment. Sometimes I just want to bumble. I want to be a thoughtless Labrador who tracks mud in the house and still gets to sleep in the bed that night. If, as a result, I wind up as a top-billed character in the sitcom of life, then that's just a happy side effect.
So, how can I stop apologizing?
"It's a process of tracking when it happens and what you're feeling about the situation at the time. If you can relieve the source of the stress, maybe the winking will go away."
Dr. Pechter was onto something. My constant atoning is a physical stress, triggered by the conflict of being a "good girl" — something instilled in me — and the desire to be a grown-up person who isn't constantly apologizing for my existence. Unfortunately, it all comes out in one unsavory gesture of creepy goodwill.
After my conversation with the good doctor, I had an opportunity to put her insights into practice. When someone stepped on my sandaled foot at a coffee shop, I focused my attention inward, seeking to recognize impulses before acting on them. What I wanted to do was shout, "My bad!" and then make sure the other person was okay — you know, in case the bottom of his foot was injured, through the sole of his shoe, by the soft flesh of my toes. In that case, I wanted him to know that I felt terrible for having placed my feet anywhere at all on the floor. When you stop to think about, I am a crazy person.
But, at the same time, I wasn't angry; it was an accident. So, I settled for saying, "No worries!," and then I laughed affably, which is the audible version of a wink, but without the sex-offender patina. Yes, it's a process.
Jane Borden is a comedian, humorist and the author of a book of essays called I Totally Meant to Do That. She is also a recovering winker.