Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Can't He Keep His Word?

Why do so many people find it so easy to go back on their word? Why do they so often fail to honor their commitments? Why has canceling appointments become something like a  national sport?

The counterintuitive answer: people are being polite.

Allow me to explain. When someone invites you to dinner or a movie and you do not really want to go, what can you do?

Good manners precludes your saying that you do not want to go. And there are only so many times that you can lie about having other plans. Especially when the other person asks you what those plans are.

What do modern people do? Simple, they say yes and then they cancel or they do not show up.

Strangely enough, they seem to believe that this sequence of events is more polite than declining the invitation.

This way you can say that they are trying to do the right thing, only they have gotten it wrong. This is more congenial and more constructive than believing that they harbor hostile and aggressive tendencies toward you and are trying to hurt you.

The latter would make the cancellation into fighting words. And we would not want that, would we?

As I say, the person who commits and cancels does have a point. Saying No or refusing an invitation is decidedly rude. Most people will take it personally. It suggests that you are rejecting the person, and everyone knows that when the other person feels rejected he or she is likely to respond aggressively.

Incidentally, this is the reason why, back in the old days when dating and courtship were commonly practiced, women never explicitly refused a date. If they did not want to go out with Mr. X they would say that they had other plans, were busy, or were coming down with the flu. She would not say that she did not want to go out with him.

Following the rules of etiquette and decorum means avoiding confrontations, fights, and other forms of aggressive behavior. By these rules, turning down an invitation directly is bad manners.

And if it is impolite to say No, then perhaps, people seem to think, the only way to be polite is to say Yes.

Somehow or other people have learned that these are the only two choices: say Yes and cancel, or just say No.

If people believe that they have only two options here, then the culture is clearly at fault for allowing people to believe life is a dramatic conflict between extremes. In truth, life is a negotiation where we are all charged with finding the mean between the extremes.

If we want to solve today's problem we need to provide people with a middle ground, a way to say No without saying No and without saying Yes and canceling.

Here, we can take a lesson from Japanese culture. People who have done business in Japan know that the Japanese never say No. They consider it impolite.

When you invite a Japanese man somewhere and he does not want to go, or when you make a business proposal that he does not want to accept, he will not say No. He will say that he is not sure and will need to think it over. Or that circumstances make it impossible to accept.

In Japan, when you say that  you need time to think something over, or when you say that you will give the matter your fullest consideration, you are really saying No. Only, you are saying it politely, in a way that is least likely to cause offense.

So far, so good. By now, however, you are probably formulating the counter-argument, one that was enacted in the following incident, recounted to me many years ago.

An important painting had just come one the market and the art dealer who was representing the seller offered the painting to a  Japanese collector. The collector did not want the painting, so he replied that he would have to think it over.

Unfamiliar with the social code, the dealer made an egregious error. She replied: What's the matter with you, can't you make up your mind!

In all likelihood that ended all business relations between these two people.

This anecdote tells us that if you adopt a polite way to say No without saying No, you had best be dealing with someone who understands the code.

You do not want to be doing business with someone who has become so thoroughly saturated with therapy culture values that she takes your response as an opportunity to impugn your character.

Of course, it is difficult to control the way other people behave, so you should start by setting a good example. If someone tells you that he is not sure whether or not he can accept an invitation, the correct, and polite, response is to say that that is no problem. Then do not expect that they are going to call to decline the invitation, and do not berate them for failing to do so.

If you do not hear from them, assume that they have declined.

Let us say that you are the recipient of an unwanted and unwelcome invitation. You do not want to say No and do not want to say Yes and cancel.

So, you will reply that you will need to check your schedule, or see what your wife has planned for that day..

But then, your friend who does not know how to read social codes tries to pin you down. He refuses to take maybe for an answer.

If he needs to know right now, you will have to decline more explicitly because you have no real choice.

If he needs to know by Saturday, you might say that if he does not hear from you he should assume that you will not be able to make it.

The more insistent he is the more likely it will become that you will have to decline explicitly. He is trying to pressure you into choosing between accepting the invitation and being downright rude.

If you should find yourself in that position, you are obliged either to walk away from the conversation or to offer an explicit No.

Either way, you will have learned that your erstwhile friend has very thin skin indeed. And that he is trying to cover his insecurity and fear of rejection with aggressiveness.

It's probably a good time to re-evaluate your friendship.

7 comments:

SSS said...

How does this square up for what you wrote about Turks? Turks do the same thing, and yet were criticized in your piece for it. Indeed, you said there culture was "therapy culture" - whatever that means. Now, when the Japs do the same thing, and an American gets confused - the American is "therapy culture".

What gives?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It looks like I have to be more clear.

According to Berlinski, if a Turkish businessman promises to be there at 2 he does not feel in any real way bound by his word. He might be there at 6 or 8 or not at all.

If a Japanese businessman tells you that he is going to be there at 2, he will be there at 2.

If he does not want to have the meeting he will not commit to it. He will demur with a polite but clearly noncommittal statement: I need to think it over.

sss said...

I'm willing to bet the two cultures overlap in more ways than just one. I've travelled through Asia and found similar attitudes and behaviours throughout.

Turkey is in Asia, so is Japan.

The Turks are not straightforward, neither are the Japs. I think it's a common Asian trait, expressed in both similar and different ways, across the various cultures of Asia.

I don't agree with you that we Americans should adopt the same avoidance of saying no.

When people invite me somewhere and I don't want to go, I politely decline. It's not good to keep them hanging. Their plans may depend on it.

It's better to say, "Thankyou for inviting me but I won't be able to make it."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Saying that you won't be able to make it is certainly polite. It is not quite the same as saying you are going to think it over, but the latter does require a culture where people know what it means to say you are going to think it over.

When people say that they are too busy or that they have other plans they are being polite. They are not saying that they do not want to go, that they do not want to have dinner with the person, etc.

They are saying that other circumstances are preventing them from going. That is certainly one of the definitions of polite.

sss said...

Elsewhere you said this, "I believe it best to avoid confrontation where possible, and to avoid having a conversation about problem."

You might want to look at the underlying reasons as to WHY you are confrontation avoidant and why you have problems saying "no" to people.

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The dude is completely just, and there is no skepticism.