“Can I have a hug?” my middle-aged male boss asked me. It was the last day of work at a summer job I had.
I was surprised. Over the summer, I had learned that he would take peeks at women in the change room. Naturally, I was uncomfortable with his request.
I wanted to say no, but then I wondered, “Am I making a big deal of this? He’s harmless, right?” Then my thoughts wandered further: Shoot, I’m thinking too long about this. He’s probably feeling uncomfortable right now. He’s probably feeling me judge him. I need to respond.
And then I shrugged and said ok. It was a brief ‘harmless’ hug, but I regretted it.
If it was harmless, why the regret?
In the grand scheme of my life, I don’t think it was as harmless as it might have appeared. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t. I felt uncomfortable with the situation and I didn’t stand up for myself. In a sense, I betrayed myself for the sake of appearances.
People, especially women, do this all the time. I’ve had many conversations with female friends who chose to comply because they thought that a ‘No’ would be interpreted as impolite or awkward. We think that if it feels awkward or impolite then that response isn’t an option. I was thinking of what he would think of me if I said no. In retrospect, not holding my ground felt worse than the possibility of him thinking I was judging him.
Here are a few important things I’ve learned since then:
1. No one can read minds. People work with what we say. We are all responsible for communicating what we want and are OK with. The moment we say “no”, we’ve drawn a line in the sand and it’s up to the other to respond.
2. Saying “no” is not impolite; it’s being honest. We’re not doing anyone a favour when we say ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no.’ Ask any guy who has received a pity date only later to be told she was never interested. Giving an honest ‘no’ from the beginning is the best option because it is treating the person like an adult. They can handle it, or they’ll learn.
3. Stop comparing. Other people have different levels of comfort with things than we do. Just because Sandy thinks it’s perfectly fine to go on a date with a complete stranger doesn’t mean Alice needs to feel OK with that. Alice is a different person than Sandy. That’s ok.
4. Respond first, contemplate later. We ask too many questions in the moment about why we feel uncomfortable. Should I feel this way? He’s probably not a bad person, so I should just get over it right? If your gut instinct is “no” when a guy asks for your number, say so or even say “let me think about it” and take some time to ponder these questions later. Alternatively, take his number and let him know you’ll call him if you decide you’re OK with it.
It still feels wrong when I know it’s right
You’ve heard people talk about how awful it is when toddlers learn to say no. We call it the Terrible Twos. In light of this it’s easy to deduce that saying “no” is the ultimate act of defiance and rejection. It isn’t. We can say “no” and be perfectly nice, kind, generous human beings. We can say “no” and still love the person we say it to. I have said “no” to my husband on many different occasions. I have explained to him my thinking, my desires, my perspective. He knows who I am better with every clarification and every honest response. We love each other more and more each day.
When it comes down to it, the reason we girls are so concerned about saying no is because we want to be accepted. I have gone to all sorts of lengths to get people to like me, this example with my boss is one of the more sinister and embarrassing ones. My desire for acceptance means I often ignore my own well-being for the approval of others. I’m learning to look to other things that satisfy more fully than the ultimate hollowness of the approval of others. (I’ll write more on that later.)
Have you said yes when you wanted to say no before? What motivated you to comply?