Just Say No

When, why, where and how did we lose the ability to say ‘no’? Not the ability to refuse something, the inability to indicate it has been refused. An example:

It’s now normal practice for employers to specify on job ads, ‘We will contact shortlisted candidates by such-and-such date. Due to the high volume of applications it will not be possible to contact unsuccessful candidates or supply feedback.’ Why? This is the twenty-first century. How hard can it be to keep a spreadsheet of applicants’ e-mails? Select the best, prepare a group ‘thanks, but no thanks’ e-mail for the rest. Ten minutes of your time. People have spent entire mornings greasing up to you, meeting your ridiculous ‘competences’. The least you could do is give them a polite decline. The only explanation for not doing can be the minor discomfort of writing ‘no’.

Another example. I am editor of the Scottish arts website, TV Bomb. I regularly have to contact venues and festivals to book press tickets for our reviewers. For most shows, the press officer bites your hand off. They’re looking for publicity. Every so often though, there will be radio silence. You’ll chase. Sometimes they have just forgotten, but equally often, they are hoping you will go away until the event passes. Anything to avoid breaking bad news. Come on people, just say no! “No, sorry, that show’s already sold out.” “No, sorry, the performer isn’t having press to that show.” “No, sorry, we’re only letting the major press outlets into that.” I have even been known to e-mail with a request for three shows. The press officer concerned replied saying yes to two and curiously didn’t mention the third at all. Don’t leave me hanging. Hit me with it. I can take it.

I’ve never done online dating. I hate other people too much for that. But from anecdotes, it seems that one of the most frequent and annoying habits of online daters is the non-response – a person you’ve been chatting to just stops contact for no apparent reason. There will be a simple and obvious reason, of course (unless they have actually just dropped dead/been kidnapped/had to hurriedly leave the country). They just don’t want to reveal it. It’s awkward, and what would they get from it? Here’s a thought – it’s not all about you. Have some manners. Once you’ve decided someone’s not for you, be straight, be honest (but not brutal). “I’ve begun dating someone else.” “I’m looking for someone different.” “I’m trying my luck with someone better looking who I have no chance with, but I do want to keep you as a back up.”

It seems that inability to say no is one of the phenomena beloved of Twitter and hack journalists – the Great British Problem. The kind of problem that remind me I’m not very British. Having issues with the weather, needing a cup of tea every five minutes, saying you’re fine when you’re not, not being able to ask someone to move their bag from a seat on the train etc. etc. etc. to 1 million followers on Twitter. The Americans have no problem with it. The Europeans don’t. The Spanish, for instance, just tell you how it is to your face. “Your Spanish is very strange,” one of my former English students in Salamanca said to me, in Spanish. Yes, but not as strange as your English. I’ve been here three months. You’ve been learning English twenty years. What’s your excuse?

Far better to have it straight out like that. It’s good for you. A little awkwardness means you’re getting out of your comfort zone and dealing with an issue. If nothing else, having to say no, and to explain your reasons, makes you think things through properly. Are my reasons good ones? Can I justify doing this thing to a fellow human? Can I do this in an honest way, to minimise their discomfort? Nothing hurts more than being left hanging. In the words of Elvis Costello, ‘The truth can’t hurt you, it’s just like the dark. It scares you witless, but in time you see things clear and stark.’ Not replying, not saying no, causes maximum offence to someone else just to save yourself a minor inconvenience.

So next time you’re letting me down, tell me. Tell me straight. Don’t expect me to get the message and go away. Because I won’t. I will hound you, and hound you, and hound you, until you give me an answer. So, now do I get the job/date/tickets?

Bob Dylan

“Don’t leave me hanging, man”


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