Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What, Exactly, Does 'No' Mean?

Wonder Woman can say "no" to me without a modifier, but you can't.
Leah and I got into a brisk discussion over the weekend about the meaning of "no," one that has so many shades of gray, black and white that I can't count them all.

She tends to believe that the word alone is sufficient, that it is straightforward and answers the question without a lot of fuss. I say it's not. It needs a modifier, unless the blunt, "No!" is punctuated with an exclamation point. Then, there's no definition problem. The "!" gives the "no" a distinct "hell, no" property.

But what if I text her an invitation to a movie and she responds, "No." That's a straightforward, shortform answer in a shortform medium. But what is the result? I question what the "no" means. Is she angry? Does she hate this kind of movie? Is she tired of going to movies with me?

She could have said, "Not tonight", "No, thanks", "I don't want to see that movie", "I have to wash my hair." Those responses soften the blow. She could have called and said, "Thank you for the invitation, but I won't be able to go because ..."

I asked an old friend a couple of weeks ago to go kayaking in the late afternoon, maybe watch the sun go down over Carvins Cove. She's a long-time, close friend and I hadn't talked to her in a while, but all I got in a text response was, "No, thanks." I'd like to have heard more and I would have liked a call, rather than a text, unless the response was "Yes, what time?" With the affirmative response, we would have plenty of time to talk. With the "no" the conversation was at an end and I was left with questions.

Tell me what you think.

(Graphic: sodahead.com)

7 comments:

  1. I agree with you.

    I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that when someone responds in the negative to an invitation I've extended or a question I've asked, I appreciate a bit of explanation. A standalone "no" stops the flow of communication and leaves me wondering - just as you are doing now - what the "no" has to do with and what the rest of the story is.

    In my experience, a person who just says, "No," without any explanation or "softening" is either trying to cut off the line of communication between us or is angry about something and wants to hurt me but doesn't want to say why. It's passive-aggressive and crazy-making because if you ask about it, the nay-sayer can always reply, "I was just answering your question." While literally true, a person who says that is also saying, "I don't care how you feel about it, I don't want to hear how you feel about it, and you shouldn't bother me with your silly-ass feelings anyway."

    Good, clear communication between people who respect each other takes the other person's feelings into account. And, when feelings are trampled, whether intentionally or not, it takes time and receptivity for each to listen to the feelings of the other person, validate them, and gain some understanding to prevent further upset. Neither, "No," nor, "I was just answering your question," further that process.

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  2. This post is a week old so I don't know if my comment is really relevant anymore, but I wanted to say that I find it telling that both examples you gave involve women. It is a lifelong struggle for many women to get men to accept "No" without qualification, question, or negotiation, and that struggle isn't limited to sex. It's an incredibly frustrating and aggravating position to be in. If "No" isn't sufficient enough for an invitation to a movie, then how can (figurative) you be trusted to accept it as a response to a sexual overture? Boundaries are boundaries, and respecting a woman's autonomy mandates accepting her refusal without question, no matter how mundane the thing she's refusing. She doesn't owe (again, figurative) you an explanation.

    (I say this not knowing you or Leah or your friend at all, and not wishing to insinuate anything about you or your relationships with them. The question you raise addresses a broader issue, however, that I don't think many men - and even many women - really recognize. The point is, a plain "No" may seem brusque and impolite, but until we no longer have to have "No Means No" drilled into our heads, it's unfair to expect more just to soften the blow. One step at a time, you know?)

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  3. This post is a week old so I don't know if my comment is really relevant anymore, but I wanted to say that I find it telling that both examples you gave involve women. It is a lifelong struggle for many women to get men to accept "No" without qualification, question, or negotiation, and that struggle isn't limited to sex. It's an incredibly frustrating and aggravating position to be in. If "No" isn't sufficient enough for an invitation to a movie, then how can (figurative) you be trusted to accept it as a response to a sexual overture? Boundaries are boundaries, and respecting a woman's autonomy mandates accepting her refusal without question, no matter how mundane the thing she's refusing. She doesn't owe (again, figurative) you an explanation.

    (I say this not knowing you or Leah or your friend at all, and not wishing to insinuate anything about you or your relationships with them. The question you raise addresses a broader issue, however, that I don't think many men - and even many women - really recognize. The point is, a plain "No" may seem brusque and impolite, but until we no longer have to have "No Means No" drilled into our heads, it's unfair to expect more just to soften the blow. One step at a time, you know?)

    (My comment vanished when I logged in to my Gmail account. Fortunately I'd copied it before logging in so it wasn't lost, but if it happens to show up twice I do apologize.)

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  4. Laura: I used two examples of four recent episodes two from men. None of this had to with six or gender. It had to do with a simple matter of consideration. I would not dream of answering most questions presented to me withour more than a "yes" or "no." My mother once said, "Nobody every lost anything to courtesy." And I will say, "Not everything is about sex." At my age, frankly, not much is about sex. You may speak as bruskly and as directly as you choose to anyone you want to address that way, but I doubt you will ever be a friend of mine. I tend to like people who are careful, considerate, thoughtful and not consumed with victimhood.

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