The Way I Was Raised: Accepting “No”

It would be easy to dive into the importance of saying, “Thank You” to kick off the modern manners posts. I mean, Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and it’s a great time to remind people to polish off their gratitude, but I hate easy. Instead, let’s talk about “no”.

Thanks to so many technological advances, we are more closely connected than we’ve ever been. I can begin any given day by wishing my friend Julie a cheerful “Good Morning, Pooh!” in New Zealand, and she can see that message immediately (and then, of course, curse me immediately while muttering something about respecting the time difference and how I’d better be texting I won the lottery. But really who’s at fault? Me or the person who had their notifications turned up loud enough that it would disturb their sleep? Oh, still me? Hmph.) The fact I can annoy someone at an inappropriate time, half-way around the globe is amazing. Thanks to satellites and submarine communication cables, we’ve become this well-connected world. We can set-aside those dusty atlases and decades-old volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and experience new people, learn new things, and see our living planet in real-time – not through the lens of some stuffy entitled British explorer. (To my stuffy, entitled British readers. I’m American. That’s really my only excuse. I’d apologize, but you made us. Thanks.) It’s all incredibly cool when you take a step back and really think about it. Gone are the days where we’d have to bargain for more library time just to explore another culture – another person’s thoughts/perspectives. 

As a kid, I deeply envied my friends who had pen-pals who lived in foreign places. They received letters in these cool airmail envelopes with their exotic stamps from another kid who was living a wholly different life, having different experiences than our own. These lucky friends got to talk to them – got to hear their stories. Now I can simply send off an email to another country and have a near-real-time conversation (and let them know I’m a Princess in Texas who will give them millions, but first I need them to wire me several thousand dollars). It’s fantastic!

As we’ve grown closer, we’ve also become more comfortable sharing who we are – from our successes to our struggles – from our toes wiggling next to carefully placed fruity drinks on a beach to our emotional challenges. We’ve moved into a world where there are fewer strangers – we “see” each other more, and we tell ourselves we’re more enlightened, more accepting, and more understanding.

This post is for enlightened, accepting, understanding you as we head into the holidays. This is for the you who gets “it” – the hyper-empathetic you who feel all the feels – the “woke” you. This post is for the you who gives a thumbs-up and a heart every time a friend, near friend or that guy from your class expresses themselves. You who wish you had emoticon stickers so that when you’re forced to interact with an actual person, and they say something great, you could just reach over and slap a “Haha!” sticker on their shirt. (Note to self: sketch idea – who wants to help me write that?)

I’m writing to tell you, it’s ok for someone to tell you “no”.

You know their story, you’ve read their posts/status updates, you’ve talked to them in the halls or in a class. You feel comfortable with them because you feel a closeness – you “get” them, you enjoy them, and you invite them into your life. Then one day you extend an invitation to a gathering, to dinner, to any number of things because you want to include them more, and they just said, “no.” It can feel like a slap on the hand, and many of us have a bad habit of internalizing rejections. We make that “no” about us. How could they say “no” to this terrific idea? I’m including them. Don’t they appreciate me and this great opportunity?

We’re pretty fantastic and we definitely have the best ideas, so a “no” can be challenging to understand. Why wouldn’t someone want to be a part of this thing we invited them to do – to be part of us? Our spastic brain gerbils kick into overdrive, “They must not like me! That’s the only answer!” Then we take a moment to list all the ways that we’ve been terrific friends, “look at all the things I’ve done and I’m asking is just this small thing.”

Well my amazing friend, a “no” isn’t necessarily a rejection of you.

You’ve read their posts/status updates, you’ve talked to them in the halls or in a class. (You’ve read this sentence before.) You know their story. You also understand that people are fairly self-focused. At any given moment only a fraction of our thoughts are devoted to others – with obvious exceptions and to obvious degrees. A lot of what we do is based on our own needs. So, my point is this: When someone says “no” think of five reasons why they may have said “no” that has nothing to do with you. Think back to the time that person posted repeatedly, whether in their own words or in a meme, “I’m an introvert; it takes a lot of energy to be around big groups of people.” “I lost <friend/relative/beloved pet> and my heart is wounded.” “I’m struggling with a health/mental health issue that prevents me from doing things/being around people.” “I just got back from <someplace outside of their house>, and I am looking forward to some downtime.”

After Jay died, I told several people I didn’t feel like sending out Christmas cards. (Christmas cards used to be my thing.) One friend decided what I was saying was: 1) I didn’t want to receive Christmas cards, and 2) I didn’t like sending her Christmas cards. I know this may be surprising, but my Christmas card stance was never about anyone else other than me. I was saying “no” to certain aspects of Christmas, but not “no” to people.

Really listen to the person who is saying, “no.”

If it’s still important to you that you do something with them/for them, then I challenge you to try and find another option. If big crowds aren’t their thing, if they’re struggling with loss or depression, if they’re covered from head-to-toe in a body rash, or are having a huge acne flare-up, and the cheap hair dye turned their hair a dusky green, then maybe you visit with them one-on-one – maybe you send them a text or call them on the phone. You flex those empathy muscles and show them you heard them, you understand, and you’re still there for them – willing to compromise, but showing you still want to include them. Show that you “heard” them.

And share your own needs, too. If something is important to you, then express it. Their “no” could be that they didn’t realize you needed them – that what your’e asking is something that matters.

Let’s all agree to work on listening, communicating, and and not making assumptions when it comes to “no’s.” Let’s pull our egos out of the equation. Instead, think of “no” as an opportunity – an opportunity to grow in our understanding of each other.