What is unclear about the word no?
Questions Without Answers
Each month, Olivia Scher chooses a personal question to ask herself, discussing her ideas, thoughts and feelings about life and the world around us. In exploring a range of topics she dares herself to be brutally honest in the pursuit of insight acquired through questions without answers.
There is a lot of stimulation in the modern world, demanding our attention and competing for our focus. The option to say ‘no’ is always present but when we do, it is all too often ignored. Ignored by algorhythms designed specifically to pretend to listen, but which actually discreetly disregard our less convenient answers. This tends to be tolerated as fair game in the consumer world and accepted as just part and parcel of being an individual with an online presence in the digital age. But to me, this is also a disturbing echo of a wider trend in society – specifically the refusal of some people to hear or respect the word ‘no’. This sits alongside the perennial difficulties that both men and women can experience in saying this unambiguous little word. And I know for sure, I have often felt the difficulty of just saying no.
As a young woman this has become an important conscious journey, a journey that develops as I enter my twenties. I have been told many times that when you want to say no… ‘just say no’. Women and men have shared this advice and it should be this simple. However, ‘just say no’ neglects to acknowledge the dynamic nature of our language and barriers, and it fails to contextualise the complex messaging that often accompanies this word. Subsequently, whilst just saying ‘no’, we are often advised to have a follow on sub-clause, a subtly conflicting message that undermines our autonomy: ‘be assertive… but don’t be bossy; demand what you need… but don’t be greedy; ask for respect… but don’t be aggressive’ – the ways in which we position ourselves are fundamental when it comes to saying ‘no’.
It is undoubtedly a good thing when we are raised to respect people’s feelings and encouraged to be considerate. However, women especially are very often taught to prioritise another person’s comfort ahead of their own. We absorb this message throughout our lives – that the comfort of others comes before our own, and thus we are bound to experiment with the many ways there are to take the sting out of a straightforward ‘no’. This socially learned coping mechanism is designed to remove the discomfort of outright rejection – our own discomfort as well as the other person’s. However, in so doing, we deny ourselves permission to simply believe in the integrity of the word itself. Alongside this, patriarchal messaging reinforces the idea that men know what’s best – and that being told ‘no’ is often a threat to a man’s masculinity and thus dangerous to the established order. The burden of not appearing threatening is overtly and subtly oppressive, overlapping as it does with the worthy intention to be considerate towards others, qualities perhaps more often associated with women. In this sense both the message ‘no’, and the concept ‘no’ becomes subsumed in complex layers of meaning; it becomes a multi-dimensional dance of missteps, challenging for men and women alike. The integrity of the message is compromised.
Increasingly, it seems to me we are being taught that it is OK for ‘no’ to be interpreted as ‘maybe’. Unambiguous as it should be, it appears that ‘no’ is rarely considered entirely adequate in and of itself, as a complete answer and a clear message. This disregard for the concept of ‘no’ is ingrained so deeply into society that hugely successful businesses are built on the model of pestering us until our attention is captured and reluctantly, eventually, we give in and say ‘yes’.
However, saying ‘no’ ten times before saying ‘yes’ is not the same as just saying ‘yes’.
When this model enters our personal lives, it undermines the essence of a question. A question conveys options, a question bestows autonomy, a genuine question demonstrates respect for another person. When we ask somebody something, we enter into a mutual understanding that there are many potential answers, including answers that haven’t been anticipated, or that don’t align with our preferences – and crucially, that this includes the possibility of a straightforward ‘no’. And in a meaningful dialogue nobody should feel pressured to answer one way or the other – that is the whole purpose of a question – and that ‘no’ does not mean ‘maybe’.
The word ‘no’ does mean ‘no’. It hasn’t always felt that way, but it should be that simple. Nobody should have to fight for their ‘no’ to be heard in this way. ‘No’ can be delivered and received as a complete sentence and a full answer in and of itself. ‘No’ is also a concept and a clear message and can be owned by every individual at any moment of their lives. My ‘no’ will be heard and respected as such. Uncomfortable as it may be, it is the right of everyone – regardless of gender or regardless of age – and I hope that when I have a child, a daughter or a son, they’ll never need to come to me and ask why a particular person in their life won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.