Once upon a time, a New York art dealer was trying to sell a painting to a Japanese collector.
Responding to her offer, the collector said: I will think it over.
To that, the dealer replied: What’s the matter with you? Can’t you make up your mind?
In part, this was a culture clash. In Japan it is considered impolite to say No. It is impolite to say No to anything. It is customary. Everyone understands the rule and acts accordingly.
American culture is far looser. Most people know better than to say No, but a few believe that anything less than No is inauthentic.
In most cases, saying No feels and is abnormal.
Most of us, when asked to go out to go out to dinner with someone we would rather not spend time with, normally explain that we are too busy or that we have another engagement.
It’s vastly preferable to saying, No, which means, I don’t want to see you. Even without the explanatory addendum, the No, in and of itself, is a rejection. It might make an acquaintance into an enemy.
Elizabeth Bernstein offers a useful example in a recent Wall Street Journal column.
Lesley Ronson Brown knew the woman on the phone asking her to serve on the board of a nonprofit was making a good point, detailing how the group would benefit from her leadership skills. Ms. Brown politely explained that she was busy with other volunteer activities and wanted to spend more time with her family.
The woman kept pleading. So Ms. Brown did the only thing she could think to do: She climbed up on the chair in her office—to feel bigger and more powerful, she says—and "practically growled" her answer. "I was trying to say 'no' in a lower-octave, tall brunette voice," says Ms. Brown, who is petite (and was blonde at the time).
Brown was being polite and courteous. The other woman was being extremely rude. She should not back Brown into a corner where she has to choose between doing something that she doesn’t want to do and rudely dismissing her.
By insisting on a Yes or No answer, the woman is trying to force Brown to do something she doesn’t want to do.
The point bears emphasis: when someone gives you only two choices, Yes or No, the answer should always be No. You should never say Yes just because it is rude to say No.
More importantly, when someone rejects all of your polite ways of declining an invitation, you should seriously reconsider your commitment to that person.
There are times when one needs to say No. Everyone should be capable of saying it. And yet, when someone refuses to take “maybe” for an answer, you should question his or her character. At the least, he or she is not acting like a friend.
People do not say No because it is morally corrosive, both to the person who says it and to the person who receives the rejection.
Dr. Vanessa Bohns explains it well:
One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong…. Saying "no" feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness.
It feels threatening because it is threatening.
Sadly, it often does hurt feelings. "No" is a rejection. Neuroscience has shown our brains have a greater reaction to the negative than to the positive. Negative information produces a bigger and swifter surge of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex than does positive information. Negative memories are stronger than positive ones. All of this is to protect us: A strong memory of something hurtful helps us remember to avoid it in the future.
Hopefully, that includes avoiding people who try to exploit your good manners in order to pressure you into doing something that you don’t want to do.