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Why So Many People Just Can't Say No

Two letters. One syllable. Tons of drama.

One little syllable. Two tiny letters. Yet there are some people who would rather cross burning sands than utter that sound. Even for people who can say “no,” it doesn’t always come easily.

Our culture has given us memes and rituals that help us avoid having to utter that dreaded word. We have invented ways of suggesting that we might want to decline without having to look anyone in the eye and say “No.” If you stand back and watch it happen, you’ll be amazed at the number of socially acceptable, watered-down alternatives there are for that simple, one-syllable word. A friend of mine calls it “no-o-phobia.” It’s as if we think speaking those two letters is going to kill.

I’m in a men’s group. About a year ago, we had some difficulty keeping our membership numbers at a satisfactory level, so I asked a friend who works at a Social Service Agency whether she could recommend somebody. She had a colleague who she thought would be a good addition, so we invited him. He came to a sample meeting and the guys liked him. We invited him to join us but after two weeks there was no reply. So we asked him a second time, this time via phone message. Again, no response. The third invitation was sent by email. Again, nothing.

I asked my friend if she would talk to him at work and see what was going on. To her credit, she said “No.” She told me, “He’s already answered you. It’s a passive no. Don’t you remember what you taught me several years ago?”

Suddenly I remembered: She had come to me in a state of confusion. She had asked a friend for a favor but the woman didn’t say yes and wouldn’t say no. Despite repeated overtures, this woman just left my friend hanging. “Why is that?” she asked me in frustration. “Why won’t she give me an answer?”

At the time, I assumed the explanation was geographical. I suggested to my friend, “She already has given you a reply. It’s called a Canadian No.”

My friend looked puzzled. “What’s a Canadian No?” she asked. And so I explained that Canadians don’t like to say “no.” That doesn’t make them more likely than Americans to say “yes.” It just means they are far less likely to look you in the eye and say “no.” It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re face-to-face, talking to them on the phone, texting, or emailing them—they are far more comfortable having your request die of old age than actually refusing it. They’ll leave it for you to figure out that whatever it was you wanted just ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve since learned I was wrong, in the sense that many Americans share this timidity as well. I have taken to calling it a “passive no” rather than limiting it to Canadians.

But the question remains why this passivity is so widespread. One benefit it provides is that everybody gets to save face and, most of all, everyone is saved from the dreaded “C word”—Conflict.

Some people–and I hope you’re one of them–find this whole business a bit puzzling, maybe even humorous. Why didn’t this woman just say “no” to my friend? Why didn’t this guy just say “no” to my group? What would it have taken for these people just to utter that dreaded syllable? What could have happened that would be so terrible? As Nancy Reagan and others have suggested (in an entirely different context), “Just Say No.”

But this is where you need to remind yourself that what’s terrifying for one person can be a walk in the park for somebody else. Admittedly, I have not quantified the effect. I have not examined, for example, whether this kind of passivity is more extreme in Canada vs. the States, or in my part of Ontario than in other regions. One of you can get some federal grant money and approach the topic systematically. But if you ask me to help you write the proposal, it’s a pretty safe bet I will smile, look you in the eyes, and give you a most un-passive, un-Canadian “No.”

Humor aside, the point is not to cast aspersions at an entire nation, but to cast aspersions at anyone from anywhere who chooses to remain passive when a bit of social honesty is called for – even if the expression of that honesty may lead to a few awkward moments. The easy way out is rarely the best way, and it is rarely something to be proud of. I’d go even further: When it becomes habitual, it is something to be ashamed of. And really, the problem transcends national or ethnic borders.

Few of us seek conflict, but it is hard to imagine a life without it. I disrespect the man who chose not to say “no” to our group. He avoided ruffling feathers, but at what cost? Personal integrity? Cowardice? Disrespect? Do those sound like admirable qualities? Sometimes “no” is the most honorable and respectful thing you can say to someone.

Thanks to Doug Reberg, Christine McCormack, and Yana Hoffman.

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