Learning To Say No
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The other day Mike asked me if I wanted to go to the store. Absolutely not, was my answer. I don't want to go to the store, ever. I go to the store because I need apples and arugula and chicken, not because I need to pass some time. There's nothing more irksome than going to the store, returning home, and realizing you forgot an important item. Toothpaste or tampons or bananas, for instance. Last year, while on a trip to Mexico, one of my fellow travelers asked me what my favorite food is. Apparently, he meant something like tacos or pad Thai, but I said, "bananas." A perfectly ripe banana can soothe any malady, real or imagined, physical or of the heart.
I said "no" to going to the store because I don't like people. I don't like navigating crowded aisles or elbowing my way through a crowd to get at a cannister of oatmeal. I don't like when men try to speak to me, as if I care about the radishes that are on sale, as if I want their phone numbers or, God forbid, their appendages. I don't like screaming children, and I don't like that I judge what everyone is buying. Nobody needs eight boxes of Cocoa Puffs, and I find it hard to mask my disgust when I see carts full of sugar and food items created to deteriorate gut lining. I don't like shopping carts; I find them too big and difficult to push and utterly disgusting. I don't even like talking to staff, "need something?" No, absolutely not. From you? Never. Of course, I do need something, which is why I'm at the store, but I would rather not have your help finding it.
I don't like parking lots, with carts stuck every which way and doors flying open and children straying from their parents. I don't like waiting for someone to back up so that I can back up, and I certainly don't like running people over with my unsuspecting white Hyundai, not that I ever have.
It felt really nice to say no to Mike's offer to go to the store. I don't want to go to the store and saying so felt like scratching an itch or like cutting too-long fingernails. I used to be very bad at saying no, which is a behavior that's highly associated with the character trait agreeableness in the Big Five. You're probably wondering what the hell I'm talking about and you're right.
Women are typically higher in trait agreeableness than men, but I'm not sure if that's due to nature or nurture (probably both). I think I've become more disagreeable over time because I realized that being too agreeable gets nobody nowhere fast. If you're always worried about pleasing everyone around you, you'll never be able to focus on what you might actually want. And after bending and shifting myself into all sorts of uncomfortable configurations for years, I decided that I'd start saying no and stop feeling bad about it.
At work, if I'm asked to take on extra work but won't receive extra compensation, I say no, unless the work is something that really scratches at my soul. Working for nothing is agreeable. Not asking for a raise is agreeable. Working too much is agreeable, and here's the really fucked up thing, anti-productive.
In relationships, being too agreeable is a sure turn off. "Whatever you want dear," is nice sometimes, but if you repeat it too often you start to sound like a broken record and a pushover. People think they want an agreeable partner, but people don't know that what they really want is someone to sometimes challenge them, make them think, inspire them, and of course, support them. Having boundaries is sexy and saying yes to things you don't want to say yes to is, for some reason, hugely unattractive.
I once read a study about confidence, and how men in particular who look and act confident but maybe aren't that smart get promoted more than someone who relies solely on their intellect. I don't know about you, but I've met lots of men and women, whose confidence, more than anything else, carries them far.
When I was young and attending public school, I was never told, "You shouldn't do anything you don't want to do." I was told things like, "Do x y and z." "Follow instructions." "Do what we say and you'll be fine." So instead of learning how to do things, I often learned how to follow directions. Now that I'm an adult who could feasibly buy eight boxes of cocoa puffs, eat a tarantula for dinner, or produce tiny, soft-skulled offspring, it feels liberating to say no, and to figure out what I really do want.
No, I don't want to go to the grocery store. No, I don't want to attend the wedding of a couple I've never met. No, I don't want another drink. No, I don't want to kiss you right now. No, I don't want to take on just one more project. No, I don't want to fold and crumple and tear apart my life in an effort to make everyone else comfortable and happy. No, I don't.
The last time I went to a grocery store, a young man in a red polo shirt offered me a free sample of a miniature hot dog. "No, thank you," I said. He offered me a coupon, and I shook my head. I felt sorry for him, in the way a mother feels bad for withholding sweets from her kid. "It's for your own good," I wanted to tell him.
At checkout, I was asked to round up my bill for charity. No, thank you. Did I want to purchase a paper bag for $0.10, or would I rather carry my many groceries in my arms and try not to break my eggs? Bag, please. The woman in line behind me was buying a large bottle of Tito's and an assortment of chips. I looked away. "Would you like help carrying your bags to the car?" I had two bags, and I smiled at the checkout boy, who couldn't have been more than 17. "No, thank you." Then I walked to my car, loaded my bags, and waited for a family of seven to pass. Then I waited for a pickup truck to back up. Then I waited for an employee to walk by, pushing a long line of shopping carts. When I was mercifully able to leave the lot, I turned my music up loudly and screamed. It felt good, and I wanted to.
P.S. Read about how to say "no," here, read Fuck No, how to stop saying yes when you can't, you shouldn't, or you just don't want to, or watch this Tedx Talk about how to stay no.