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The Truthful No

I read an interesting post last week about why creative people say “no” and how this enables them to do their own work.  It starts out with a story about a professor who was contacting creative people — writers, artists, musicians — to interview them for a book he was writing.  Out of the 275 contacted, two-thirds didn’t participate.  About 183 people turned down the opportunity to help this professor and be part of his study.  Which, on one hand, seems a little dick-ish.  And on the other hand, was probably necessary in the minds of those individuals.  The truth is that most people can’t help out every single person who asks for help and still have anything left for themselves or their own work.

In fact, the article goes on to point out:

The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.

It’s a great post except it sort of misses the point that for the professor to do his work and be a creator, he needs some collaboration.  He needs people willing to give up a few minutes of their time and speak to him.  If not, being creative becomes impossible.  And in turn, this article sort of assumes that whatever everyone else is doing is Important with a capital I.  And the book this professor is creating is important, with a lowercase i.  Mr. Bellow’s books trump the Hungarian’s, hence why we should learn something valuable by the fact that Saul says “no.”

This is where the “just say no!” mantra falls apart because everyone creative needs people to say “yes.”

How would Mr. Bellow feel if he realized that no one had any time for his books because we’re all out here being creative, and we just have to say “no” to reading other people’s work?  I only find the creative people’s rejections admirable and something I should emulate if they would also graciously accept the idea that no one has the time to see or experience their creations.  I have a feeling that Richard Avedon wouldn’t have been okay if everyone brushed him off saying, “sorry, can’t see your work.  Too little time left” when he hung up his photographs.  Or if no one came to listen to Ligeti’s violin concerto, and he entered the orchestral hall to find it void of people.  Since all those people were off at home, working on their own creations.

Creative people need people to interact, consume, and above all, pay attention to their creations.  It would behoove them to say “yes” every once in a while.  Not to every request because if you’re getting dozens of requests each day, your day can easily become filled with helping everyone else and never taking care of yourself.  But say “yes” to the projects that interest you, or to the people who interest you.  I support people who have taken the time to build a relationship with me before making the request, and with any leftover time, I just give help to cool things that interest me.  Other people have their own personal rules that help them to distinguish when they should say “yes” and when they should say “no.”


To be frank, as a creative person who often needs to ask people for help with my creations, I really appreciate the truthful “no” over the “yes” with no follow through.  People think they are being kind by saying “yes,” but the fact of the matter is that the moment you say “yes,” people start counting on you.  And when a person doesn’t follow through, that “yes” without the follow through becomes so much worse than the truthful “no.”  In one case, the person was counting on something to happen, and in the other, they knew to seek a different person for the task.

I would much rather have someone send back a polite rejection — I don’t even need a reason, just an acknowledgement that my request can’t be met — than promise to do something and then not do it.

The author touches on that cultural point in that quotes above — we think it’s more polite to say “yes” instead of “no.”  That saying “yes” makes us look agreeable.  Is less off-putting.  I agree with the writer because we’re taught to say “yes” even when we know in the darkest recesses of our heart that what we need to say is “no.”  So we say yes and then hope the person will understand when we don’t follow through.  We can say that we got busy, that we forgot, and they’ll understand because it happens to all of us.  But in that respect, I would rather have a truthful “no” than a “yes” without follow through.  Because not all yeses are created equally; and some have their intended meaning and some end up having an unintended meaning.  “No” in that case is not rude; and strangely enough, “yes” (when it comes without follow through) is rude.

Would you rather face the rejection of truthful “no”s or would you rather hear “yes” without knowing if it’s a yes with or without follow through?


1 Tigger { 05.28.13 at 2:59 pm }

I would far rather the truthful “no”, myself. My time is valuable. Your time is valuable. Please don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours. I think one of my biggest pet peeves is people who are late to a thing with no communication happening. If I’m waiting for you to come pick me up, or come to a gathering at my place, or meet me at the movies and you are running late, a simple phone call or text to say “running late, be there in X” works perfectly. If you don’t do these things, I have no way of knowing if you ARE going to show up and then I’ve wasted my time waiting (and have probably worked myself into a tizzy about people who waste my time…) when I could have been doing something else.

2 a { 05.28.13 at 3:13 pm }

Ha! At this point in my life, it doesn’t really matter. Even if someone says yes, I will not likely believe them. I would rather have the truthful no, though.

3 Cristy { 05.28.13 at 3:53 pm }

I completely see your point and in the broader sense agree with it. After all, for many creative people, collaboration is key to survival as well as success. But what was interesting about the article is that it focuses on an incredibly important concept, which is the whole idea behind “no.” I’ll be the first to admit, there are people I don’t want to spend my time and energy on. Telling them no is easy. But then there are the people/projects I am interested in and want to pour my time and energy into. Yet there are moments that I am so swamped with other projects that saying “yes” will lead to stretching myself very thin and not being able to do the project well. So what I took away from this article is the reminder that saying “no” is actually important to future collaborations. That it’s not a rejection but instead a way to build trust.

4 It Is What It Is { 05.28.13 at 4:32 pm }

I absolutely believe that “no” is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. That quote is right, “you have less time than you need and need more than you know”. That said, if you say “no” to every single request made of you you will likely find yourself with few (or fewer) friends. Your “no” will lead to the reciprocal “no”.

I have learned to protect my time and dole out my yeses importantly.

I agree that I would MUCH prefer a ‘no’ to a yes with no follow through. I think that an empty ‘yes’ is far worse because I am counting on you for whatever you agreed to and by not following through (and, worse, doing so at the last minute), you will be putting me in a bind when I could have lined up someone who meant their ‘yes’.

5 persnickety { 05.28.13 at 4:54 pm }

A truthful no, every time. It may irritate me at the time, but doesn’t waste my time.
I had a co-worker who did the inactive yes, and I would end up with her work. I fully practice the art of saying no- ie if i say i can’t do it, to then have to do it will have an impact on everything else i said i could do. I think I helped trigger her resignation because I finally called her on it- you have 2 weeks till this is due, but effectively you have 2 days before I need to know whether you can do, because otherwise I can’t do it either at the last minute. She talked to our boss that day.

I think it has a lot to do with work habits and how we credit others for work. Some people will consider trying as good as finishing- ” i tried to write that book, but i couldn’t finish it” , others are more black and white, if it isn’t finished it isn’t done-if the book isn’t finished, you have not written a book. I am more in the black and white camp, but there is a bit of a push for the first option.
This is all relative- someone struggling through a new language with a single sentence is doing something, even if they are trying and failing; someone who is semi fluent, but barely tries to use that language in the same situation is not really doing.

6 Another Dreamer { 05.28.13 at 5:37 pm }

Hands down I would always take the truthful no to a yes with no follow through. Which kind of reminds me of RSVPing these days, people check yes but then never show. I hate that. I hate the prep, the expectation, then the ultimate bailout with a sketchy response. Just say you’re busy to begin with man! Haha, sorry, I rambled off there for a moment.

7 Esperanza { 05.28.13 at 6:02 pm }

I think it’s a little different to say no to participating in a project that doesn’t bring joy to you (like being a part of the book in the example) but helps someone else, than saying no to experiencing someone else’s creation when that creation might bring you joy (like the examples of reading someone’s book or seeing their photographs). The reality is that people say yes to experiences that bring them joy and that is about THEIR experience, what they get out of it, and not what they are giving to the other person. Participating in someone else’s project, like the book, is about ther person you’re doing it for. The
two situations (as I understood them) just seem so different as to be incomparable. I think in the end people have to do what works for them. If that makes the job of the person who needs collaboration harder, well it sucks for them, but it’s the reality of the situation. Creative types don’t owe other creator types anything just because they are both creative. If they can create a situation that is mutually beneficial that is great, otherwise to each his own. At least that is how I see it.

8 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.28.13 at 8:12 pm }

I’m a fan of truth. I’d prefer a yes, but a truthful no is preferable to a phony yes.

One of my pet peeves is when people don’t do what they say they will.

9 Catwoman73 { 05.28.13 at 10:49 pm }

The truth is always preferable. Even in situations where I desperately want to hear a yes, I would still rather hear a no if that’s what a person really means. There’s nothing that upsets me more than someone wasting my precious time, or giving me false hope.

10 Finding My New Normal { 05.29.13 at 1:46 am }

It’s got to be the truthful no for me. I find the passive yes with no follow through much more rude than someone just saying no. I have a friend who does this to me and I finally told her that it’s fine to say no to me.

I’ve gotten better at no as I’ve gotten older and I feel much better for it. Because the passive yes weighs on you from the moment you say it because you know you have to come up with some excuse at the last minute. No is much simpler and easier in the long run.

11 Justine { 05.29.13 at 4:06 am }

I prefer the truthful no, too. But I also wish I had better boundaries. Because I typically say yes and mean it. Not to everything, but definitely to too much. And then I resent it when other people say no, and focus on themselves, because there I am, listening to the symphony, or looking at the exhibit, or reading someone else’s literature, and doing doing my own creative thing. Like anything else, it requires a balancing act.

12 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 05.29.13 at 3:23 pm }

It’s one of the things that has troubled me since childhood– do what you say you are going to do. You don’t have to be honest, 100% of the time (I’d rather you lie to me about how horrible you think my new haircut really is than to bluntly tell me how ugly it makes me…), but if you say that you are going to do something, DO IT. So yeah, I guess I fall on the truthful “no” side. If your dog breaks into my room and eats a pair of my shoes, do not tell me that you’ll buy me a new pair if you don’t mean to do so. Don’t tell me you’ll bring me something special and then flake out. Don’t tell me you want to do XYZ and then cancel at the last second because you’ve found something better to do.

To me, it falls in the same category as being on time when you make appointments. When we tell someone that we’ll meet them at 10, and then we routinely show up at 10:30, it sends a clear message that we are not worthy of their consideration. If you know you are consistently 30 minutes late, then tell me so. Tell me that you’ll plan to be there at 10, but that you might not be there until 10:30. And for Pete’s sake, if you are routinely late, do not be peeved at me when I am not there after you have (essentially) lied to me over and over. Be honest with me, or don’t waste my time.

(And that’s what this “no” thing is all about, right? Recognizing the value of our time? If we agree to and allow for the fact that time has an inherent value, what does lateness say about that? My time has value and yours doesn’t? I allow for the fact that unexpected things come up, but it never hurts anyone to be *early*. If you know this may be a problem for you, build the time into your schedule. Bring a book to peruse if you leave early and it happens that nothing comes up.)

(Can you tell this is a pet peeve of mine, the lateness thing? It really does fall into this category of saying no, though, I think…)

13 lostintranslation { 05.30.13 at 4:30 pm }

I’d rather have a truthful no. Sometimes people also say yes not just to be polite but really wanting to do it but then stuff/life gets in the way and they forget. And then you have to remind them (or not)…

Having said that, I realize I still owe you that amazon review. I don’t want you to think I just said yes and won’t follow through. I’ve written it many times in my head already – but being a perfectionist I’m still not satisfied by it. But I will get over that and submit something soon!

14 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 05.30.13 at 8:50 pm }

Truthful no. Say what you mean, folks!

15 battynurse { 06.03.13 at 10:20 pm }

I would totally prefer a truthful no. I tend to take it personally if someone says yes and then doesn’t follow through by thinking it’s me, or something I’ve done.

16 Valery Valentina { 06.15.13 at 5:13 pm }

I have a childless aunt, and she loves us nieces and nephews. I live close and come to see her regularly. My brother lives in another country, another cousin lives close as well. Both men hardly ever come to visit. My brother admitted that it is not very likely he will come visit while my cousin is cheerfully promising that he will come soon, but is rather busy now. My aunt realises that my brother is honest, but it is so painful to hear. She rather has the enthusiastic ‘later’ from my cousin….

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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