Saying “no” is hard. Often when I say no, I feel like I’m disappointing the other person, like I’ve somehow failed.
This probably sounds funny coming from someone who not too long ago wrote about her “no reflex” but there are two categories of no for me. There’s the reactive no–the one that just pops out because I can’t deal with change or spontaneity. I might feel momentarily bad but don’t get all twisted up inside over it.
The other no–the one that hides and cowers and wakes up the butterflies in my stomach with its nervous pacing–is the no that makes me feel like I’m failing. The hard no is often a result of tension between what the other person wants and what I can feel like I can reasonably do. It’s often tied in with adult social obligations, the sort encountered by parents, spouses, adult children, employees: the neighborhood book club, the PTA committee, the office holiday party, the class research project.
When people ask others to join, volunteer, lead or otherwise participate in something, they do it with such a hopeful, expectant tone of voice. The implication is “how can you refuse this excellent thing that we’re all counting on you to be a part of?” And so often, that excellent thing just feels like a burden to me.
Saying no, however, is going to lead people to make assumptions. I’m not pulling my weight. I’m standoffish. We’re not as close as they assumed. I think I’m better than other people. I just don’t care.
All of the other moms are on a committee. All of the other parents have coached a season of rec sports. All of the other wives will be there. All of the other cousins are going to the wedding. All of the other students in the department are attending graduation. All of the other neighbors are baking for the fundraiser.
Of course not literally all of the other ______ are doing anything, but that’s what the person asking will imply. Everyone else is doing it, what aren’t you? Or worse, not enough people are doing it, I’m counting on you to help me out.
This is peer pressure at its most insidious. The hints that doing this thing makes you normal or a better person or not a bad person are powerful, especially when you’ve been raised and socialized to feel like fitting in and being normal are a primary goal.
And here is where we come to the crux of the issue. Autistic children are often grow up with a strong desire to fit in, to be liked, to be normal and/or to not get into trouble. We aren’t necessarily taught that we have the right to decline activities that uncomfortable or that we can sometimes put our needs first.
Learning to Say No
No comes from different places for different people. Strong boundaries. Good social skills. Explicit instruction in saying no as a child. Good self-esteem. A general orneriness.
If no doesn’t come naturally or has been socialized out of us, we can still learn to say no. This is where scripts come in handy. Not only do scripts give us the words that we might find unnatural, they prevent us from accidentally saying yes when we mean no.
Social communication is fraught with code words and unspoken communication. If your no is too soft, it can be misconstrued as a yes. For example, if you mean “no” don’t say “I don’t think so” or “I shouldn’t.” This can be interpreted by the other person as an open invitation to persuasion, negotiation or further discussion. You may find yourself feeling bullied into a “yes” when you already thought you’d said no.
If you mean no, unless you clearly and unambiguously say “no” the other person may think you’re being polite or coy.
But how to do that?
Saying No 101
I’ve always secretly wished there were social skills classes for adults. Then, recently, I realized there is something very similar: etiquette. On a whim, I’d checked Emily Post’s aptly titled Etiquette out of the library. And guess what? It’s loaded with not just advice but scripts. Lots and lots of them.
Emily Post and the people who now edit her books have spent a great deal of time figuring out the polite thing to say in just about every imaginable situation. Did you know that saying no can be as simple as:
“Would you like to come with us to lunch?”
“No, but thank you for inviting me.”
That’s right, you can simply say “No, but thank you for [asking, inviting, including, thinking of] me.” No further explanation necessary! This was a revelation to me because I always thought I needed to provide an excuse when declining an invitation.
You can, of course provide an (honest) excuse if you have one:
“No, I have plans for this weekend, but maybe next time.”
“No, I can’t make it this time. Work/school is too hectic.”
When providing an excuse, be careful not to put off for the future something you have no intention of ever doing. Saying, “Work is really busy right now” opens the door to getting the same request next week. If the request is something you don’t want to do, remove the invitation for a repeat inquiry by saying, “My schedule is full right now. If that changes, I’ll let you know.
And for those of us with food sensitivities and allergies, here are a couple of simple, polite phrases for declining food offered by a host(ess):
For foods you don’t like, a simple “no, thank you” is fine.
For allergies, intolerances or diet restrictions, you can say, “________ is off limits for me, but everything else is wonderful.“
Polite. Straightforward. Inoffensive to your host’s cooking. Again, no need to offer a lengthy explanation or get into why you couldn’t possibly put a single piece of creamed spinach in your mouth without dying of sensory overload.
Beware of Traps
Not everyone knows how to politely take no for answer. People often try to guilt or bully others into saying yes, even after they’ve said no. Don’t fall for mind games:
Just because someone compliments you, you don’t have to say yes to the request that follows. For example, Mary says, “You’re the best web designer/babysitter/cake baker in the world. I know this is last minute, but could you [do some task that you don’t have time or energy for]?” Instead of feeling flattered/guilted into saying yes, you can say, “Thank you, but I don’t have time right now.” Politely acknowledge the compliment, then follow with a firm unapologetic no.
Peer pressure doesn’t end in high school. If someone prefaces a request with “Everyone is . . .” or “You’ve got to . . . ” beware. Don’t cave in to the bullying–instead politely decline with a simple, “I can’t right now.” Repeat as necessary.
Don’t allow others to trick you into doing something by making you feel sorry for them. A simple “I’m sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed, but I have my own deadlines to meet” is sufficient for turning down an unreasonable or inappropriate request.
Even well meaning people sometimes have trouble taking no for an answer, as Mados vividly illustrated in her recent post “Parties & Irrelevant Pity“. Saying no can be a complex social exchange and one that requires a lot of practice to do well. Scripts like the ones Emily Post suggests are a good starting place, especially for those of us who struggle with how to phrase things as well as how to maintain boundaries.