Aug 16, 2011

Saying no

I am beginning to suspect one of the greatest keys to happiness is learning how to say no.

This is not just about setting boundaries, which is, indeed, very important. This is not about making time to say yes to the things you really want or should to say yes to.

It is about the kind of maturity found in rejecting ideas, notions and, yes, sometimes people, with grace and kindness.

Enumerated, in no particular order, are a list of rules I wish more people would consider:

1. You do not owe a detailed explanation.
Really. You don't. You do NOT need to give a long list of reasons you can't make something, or enumerate all the obligations you have that would come before another's needs. You don't even need a litany of apologies. In fact, the more information you give to people, the more information they have to evaluate you, your priorities and your rejection with, and the more likely they are to find insult and fault. Do I really want to know that you are putting laundry before my birthday? Do I really want to know that weekly date night supersedes your friends wedding? I really just don't. All you are doing with a litany of excuses is revealing a list of priorities that take precedence over that invitation. So,be kind, but be succinct.

2. Even though you don't owe the person an explanation, it's nice to give them something.
And I mean something simple. Like: "I am sorry, I wish I could, but I already have plans". A curt "no" only communicates that not only are you saying no but that you really don't think it is worth your time to explain why. And yes, sometimes a simple "can not " suffices. I mean, if we are talking about group invitations on facebook from your third cousin, yeah, sure, a simple "no thanks" really does the trick. But if a friend asks you to do something you should probably give the a bit of an excuse. And the more important the event is to that person, the kinder, clearer and more succinct your answer should be. "I am sorry, but I can not make your baby's baptism because I already have obligations I absolutely can not break" will do. Again (and I know this just brings us back to Number 1, but it is really worth repeating), there is no need for "I'd love to be there but I have a ticket to Les Mis and my boyfriend is sick so all this laundry is piling up and I am just so tired" It just makes the person wonder why your laundry can't wait a day until after the baptism, or why your grown up boyfriend can not take care of themselves while you show up for precious Jenny's big moment. And it makes them wonder why they issued a big important invitation to you when you are treating it like a terrible obligation to be added to the pile of laundry and sick people. Seriously, it's Jenny's big moment, so say sorry kindly, and let them know that there is a reason you are not able to make this important event. Give them a hug even, or send a smiley face. Use a fucking emoticon, and move along.

3. If this is an invitation you really wish you could say yes to, but sadly can not, make an alternate suggestion so they know you appreciated the request.
You know, sometimes you really really WANT to say yes. Sometimes you are asked to help someone move and they helped you move the week before,or you are asked out for dinner with someone you want to spend time with but are filled up all week with obligations. So, take a moment, and consider when you might be free or how you might be able to make it up to them. Phrases like: "I really can't that day, but I'd love to help you unpack, if you need help with that" or "Wow, I am really busy next week but would love to have dinner. Do you have any time the Sunday after?" will communicate that their invitation was welcome, and was appreciated, and that you, ya know, actually value them in your life.

4. If this is an invitation you really are pretty pleased to be able to say no to, DON'T make a big production of your sadness.
I mean really, this is just confusing and stupid. SometimesyYou are invited to a colleague's group happy hour and you just don't want to go. That is when: "I am sorry, I really can't" will suffice. You don't need to go on about how much you'd love to hang out and how you should do it another time. In fact, it seems to me most invitations that fall into this category are made our of politeness in the first place, anyway. SO just be polite, but direct, back. And if they are actually heartfelt invitations that you really want to not receive then you are not sending a clear enough message by being effusively sorry or taking a raincheck.

5. Pay attention to the quality of the invitation.
I mean, come on people. If your friend invites you to the opera with excitement, and you hate or can't afford the opera, don't follow your no, with "but you can come by and slug some PBRs if that doesn't work out". I mean, it isn't just insulting, it implies a certain pathetic need on the part of the person issuing the invitation that is probably uncertain. They are inviting you to special event, not sending out a desperate plea for company of any kind. Consider your response.
On the other hand if your friend invites you out for a casual drink and you feel like a hike, it is probably okay to express, WITH ENTHUSIASM that you would love to hang out, don't feel like a drink, but would love to go on a hike that night, or another night if they are attached to a drink that night. The key here is still sensitivity and enthusiasm. If this is someone you actually like, and you want to spend time with them, best to treat their enthusiasms with respect and kindness, even if you do not share that enthusiasm.

6. If you say no enough, people will begin to think they should stop asking for things.
I know, this isn't exactly incentive to say no unless that is the effect you are going for. So you might have to go out of your way to invite people to things or offer help or what have you from time to time if you make a habit of saying no. Even if you do it with unbelievable panache and grace.

7. Don't panic when you have to say no.
I mean, really. There are a zillion things you are going to have to say no to in your life, and people tend to feel something is wrong when they ask you to have a drink and you respond with abject fear. It may be that you are overwhelmed and one more request is just sending you to a tizzy. It may be that this is the 5th request you've gotten for your time in the last hour. But people don't need to know that and they don't need to know that their simple request is causing you grief. Because quite honestly, their request ISN'T causing you grief...your busy life, or lack of time managment skills, or simple bad timing is the culiprit. Not their suggested nightcap. And the less kind, calm and sincere your regrets sound, the more alarmed and annoyed you come off, the more likely they are to take your rejection personally. Which is ironic since that might be what you are panicking about in the first place.
So stop, drop and roll. Consider the request and the level of acuity and respond appropriately. Succinctly, kindly, and with enthusiasm. To be clear, this means "I am overwhelmed, annoyed and overburdened in general and the idea of spending a night with you and your child sounds like a hellish waste of time even on a good week, so I wish you'd go out and get a friend who likes that shit, and save the adult invitations for me" should sound like: "I'm sorry, but I really can't. I promise to show up at your next happy hour,though"
Also, understand this: while most people will, most likely, be briefly disappointed by your (kindly, succintly phrased) "no" they also, most likely, will not be crushed beyond repair. Disappointing people is a fact of life, but assuming people's entire happiness hinges on your agreement and cooperation is just a silly ego boost you'll need to let you of. Most people are pretty resilient and hurting them just takes more work. So, if that is your fear, get over it.

8. Consider that other people are busy, important and overwhelmed as well, and they also often have to say no to things . AKA, don't be a self important ass.
Which is to say, if you receive a request or invitation don't just assume it is cast out of a sea of free time and stress free recreation. Yes, it might seem like you are crazy busy and your friend always has free time that they are trying to fill with your precious moments. It might look like your sister spends hours on the internet and can't possibly understand the demands you have on your resources when she asks you to dinner. But she might be managing her business and looking to spend her few scant hours with you. She might be asking for help moving because of this, and you are her only hope. Or maybe she just really had her heart on a little time with you, and is super busy herself. Or not. It doesn't matter. The point is that an invitation or query for help is not an open opportunity to impart value judgement on how people spend the time that is NOT offered to you. The busiest person in the world might have asked a zillion people before you to come over a knock back some brews every night this week at the end of social swarm. The freest person on earth may just be calling you because they really want to see YOU and do that specific thing with you. SO, just consider that that they value your time, company and assistance and that is why they asked. And respond appropriately. No one likes to have their time treated as if it has no value, even if it is free time.


Snowcap said...

I really, really wish that you had a widely-read advice column. Because I would like to link to this from everywhere forever.

Emily said...

I love that you did a personal take on this one. I agree with all of what you said, even though I don't follow it all the time. I'm good at it in the professional world, but not as good in the personal one.
"Use a fucking emoticon, and move along." AMEN. I aim to do this more. oh, and "don't be a self important ass." yay!

I wrote about the professional take a few years ago, but wish that it could have included the emoticons...

Unknown said...

I feel as though much of this excellent advice is pretty clear to me now, but that it took me years of practice to learn how.

I have set up an email address for my daughter, and I occasionally send her emails, advice, love notes, and commentary on how amazing she is. Yes, she is only 4, and when she is old enough to read it she will probably be convinced (if she isn't already) that I am the freakiest mom alive. But hopefully when she is a little older than that she will appreciate it.

Anyway, I hope you don't mind if I send her this.