Ten years ago, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, The Art of Disappearing, punched me in the jugular. It’s the kind of poem that demands you sit up straight, enunciate your words, and learn to say no without crumbling into a heap of guilt. She writes,
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
In the end, all Nye asks of the reader is to think before she says, “Yes.”
Some of the most unpleasant experiences I have had in my life were the logical outcome of agreeing to do something I had no urge to. “She’s a people-pleaser,” my kindergarten teacher once told my mother. And that particular trait carried on for years. By the time I was 22, I had paltry understanding of what I wanted and an attentive hostess’ knowledge of other’s needs. Then I read that poem by Nye and I cried with fury, joy and the exhilarating rush of blood that comes with the realization: I decide how I spend my hours on this earth. No one else.
But a deliberate “no” requires a refusal strategy of some sort. Saying it can be terrifying. It’s a consonant nestled against a vowel, a two-lettered word that could be a full sentence, but uttering it poses the risk of judgment and ostracism. It threatens its speaker with the possibility of distance and disdain. It may take a second to say the word, but “no” can build iron forts and endless chasms between people, create gaps in bonds, and force many of us to find spiritually tiresome and laborious alternatives so as to not offend the person on the other end.
And yet in spite of its many perils, “no” brings with it the immense pleasure of definition. It acts like an astringent on shapeless, meaningless dynamics and exchanges. It draws lines and adds depth to our gestures. More importantly, it introduces us to the stranger in ourselves, long neglected by a dog-like adherence to obedience, and forces us to address what we truly seek from life — even if it scares us.
When I began saying “no” more frequently, I found myself. I was able to define who I was and what I wanted from life. Whether it was a small “no” turning away a party invitation or a bold “no” drawing the line at work, using the word requires a bit of a graceful, head-held-high waltz. At this point, I have a rough formula, too. For small turndowns, a simple “no, thank you” suffices. For more intimidating situations, a modifier such as “I’m thinking no” goes well, with a polite yet brief explanation as to why I’d rather not.
It’s natural if you’re still a little doubtful about the idea. After all, many of us mistake saying “no” as a lack of etiquette. But I maintain that the word may be one of the most honest, virtuous and ultimately delightful responses we can give to others. It not only respects the speaker’s priorities, it also honors the listener’s time by sparing them the lethargy of confusion and uncertainty. Sometimes, I say “no” for the sheer heck of it and that, I find, is still better than ambivalent agreement. In fact, much like straightforward statements and purposeful movement, a heartfelt “no” is arguably 10 times more clean-handed than a tepid “yes.” Try saying it next time.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.