As a southerner and a lady (pronounced uh-LAY-dee), I have always received the telepathic cultural message that “no” is not a proper response to questions or requests – at least not without a lot of explanation or qualification. Of course, not saying “no” is at best a setup for my own resentment and passive-aggressiveness. At worst, it puts me in danger of violations big and small at the hands of others.
I recently had lunch with a couple of friends to discuss my interest in search committee training. In the midst of talking about all that can go awry in the pastor-parish relationship – both before and after a call is extended – we segued into a conversation about a church’s expectations for a minister’s family. One of my colleagues recalled a mentor who, when being asked if his wife and children would be at church that evening, simply replied no. He did not feel the need to justify their absence. “Because “no,'” the mentor said, “is a complete sentence.”
I was taken aback by the truth – and the power – of that statement. I don’t have to deliver a monologue in response to an inappropriate question. I don’t have to agree to an inappropriate request. In one sense that seems obvious, but in another sense it is revolutionary.
Certainly there are times when explanation is warranted. Our noes can be opportunities for teaching. Our noes may be misconstrued and cause problems in relationship if no context is given. Our noes to supervisors pretty much always need fleshing out. But sometimes (often?) our “no” sets a boundary that we have every right to set. An accompanying explanation would permit our hearers to expect that under different conditions, that boundary would be permeable.
Now, I think it is true that middle-aged white men feel much freer to say no and leave it at that than women of any demographic. But if I am hesitant to say it for myself, perhaps I can think of it as advocacy on behalf of someone else. I want to protect my family. I want to push against the message that women should smile and go along with anything. And if I say a simple no enough times for others, then maybe one day I’ll also be better at doing it for myself. I’ll be able to summon my inner Julia Sugarbaker at a moment’s notice.
Some questions to consider, then, are:
What requests do we need to say a flat “no” to?
Where do we find the courage to say “no” without justifying our boundary?