We relish in the chaos. What’s holding you back? Say yes! Progress is associated with an open door, taking the invitation, putting yourself out there. That “it will work out somehow,” that “everything will fall into place” and “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
We scroll through social media feeds of party pictures noting who is and isn’t there. The internet has opened up an ever-present tally of social alignments, of friendships behaving like brand partnerships, of more than a fun night resting on whether or not you attended the party. But what would your life look like had you stayed home?
Add to that, the conceit that we merge business and personal lives completely. Confusing hard work with sacrificing ourselves, we erode our work/life balance to survive.
Why, though, do we not romanticize our preservation? The same matter of chance, of the fleeting nature of fate exists on the other side of the coin. What would have happened if we were better rested, if our energy was better preserved, if we managed our time and said what we really mean? Rarely do we approach whether we get eight hours of sleep with the same guilt as we do whether or not we attended a party, even when, according to sleep expert Matthew Walker, sleep deprivation prevents the brain from remembering information, creating new memories, and sustaining emotional well-being.
This is speaking directly to celebratory drinks, coffee dates and random parties that can tug on our conscience with obligation and guilt, but are founded on the conceit that they’re leisurely, entirely pleasurable and optional activities. Restorative, even! A different ballgame from the weddings, funerals, hospital visits and landmark birthdays that supportive and loving relationships are founded upon.
But it’s hard to say no. As a kid, I pledged to never say no. How messed up is that? I felt like if I really tried, I could go the length of my life without saying that bad word. That saying “no” was the sign of loose moral fiber or not being a team player. That to contribute, you have to accommodate. To this day, I’m still working on it.
The first step of anything is understanding what the hell is going on, so I asked linguist Daniel Harris, assistant professor of philosophy at Hunter College, for a broader perspective on communication and why it can be so difficult to say no.
Mr. Harris pulled out Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage and explained that something “everybody universally cares about is saving face.” Simply put, we maintain a code of politeness — treating each other gently, asking questions instead of demands and giving each other “outs” — as a sign of respect, in order to acknowledge and nurture each other’s sense of self and what’s important to us.
As above, so below — whatever feelings pop up in smaller, annoying conversations can often reflect the larger difficulties in more important facets of your life. So if “no” is a raging river rapid, turning down a party invitation is a calmer inlet. It’s cousins with letting your co-workers know you won’t have time to finish a task. Turning down an invitation is the foundational exercise, a finger push-up to inspire larger changes in your life, to flex your ability to account for yourself.
Once your preference makes itself known — or if you are permanently ambivalent — figure out if you need to go. It’s a balancing act: the weight of a milestone birthday differs from just another Thursday night out. Showing up for people we love, and also those we don’t especially love but share a life with, often takes precedence over doing whatever we want. This isn’t an excuse to be a bad friend! Saying no isn’t about throwing all our relationships under the bus, but finding our boundaries and the line where, if crossed, we’d be overextended and have to play catch-up.
But once you do enough work to get to that magical answer — no — the fun begins: strategizing.
The gold standard of saying “no” is to be as honest as possible while staying within your boundaries, knowing your limits and taking responsibility. Did you know that doctors used to lie to terminally ill patients when their prognosis seemed too hopeless? This changed with the concept of palliative care, a form of respect and care to the patient, as opposed to dishonesty and farce. Take this to heart, and remember that you are not the director of reality, responsible for everyone’s performance in the grand play that is your life. They are as entitled to reality as you are. Also, aren’t you relieved that you’re not breaking the news of inoperable cancer or bleak medical advice? Stay down to earth and remember you’re just turning down an invitation.
Sometimes it’s far weirder to go through with the formal etiquette we’ve been scolded into following, like saying goodbye to everyone at a party. In reality, this gets awkward and strange as you hold a tiny funeral for the night with every person you know, as if your presence matters so much to everyone at the gathering.
Maybe you don’t need to explain yourself at all, and don’t have to reply or explain. This is especially relevant to huge blowout parties, any and all raves, sex parties, “vision board workshops” and almost anything thrown by an acquaintance.
Allow yourself to be vague, because even if you have a guilty conscience that goads you to spill all your sins or confess whatever traumatically embarrassing moment from 2003 has butterfly-effected its way to be the reason you have to flake on a karaoke birthday, no one needs the whole story. So, unless they’re your best friend or someone else with a high clearance level of intimacy (at which point they should understand), rely on “it’s not a good time,” “something came up,” “working on stuff” or “not feeling it tonight.” You don’t have to tell the whole truth, but you do have to be sincere — because we are not monsters.
Saying you will but not going is a handy, if rude, tool reserved for the bravest and/or most inconsiderate and/or heartless. At best, you skate by without question, though they realize you never attended, wondering if it was intentional or not, if you hate them and if you’re a liar (you are). This is the most chaotic choice, as the results are all on the random whims of the other person’s tether to reality and insecurities, and if they spiral it into a whole thing, they might think you are enemies now. At worst, you would be confronted and could come clean, ranging from brutal honesty to a white lie.
Lying is … not especially recommended. But there are times in which you throw caution to the wind, and you must try the least advisable option to see how terrible your life can get, which can be thrilling sometimes. It’s self-destructive. Or, it’s your only resort because you’re dealing with a tricky situation like your boss demanding something impossible of you, or an unreasonable person you have to satiate. In this situation, be sure to not incriminate yourself on social media.
There are things we can’t be super honest about, both to keep our business to ourselves and because of how it’s perceived. Health issues like sensitive conditions, mental illnesses or someone’s sobriety aren’t great to drag in the public square.
This is where you over-apologize or wax poetic about how terrible you feel, which forces them to console you and gets you off the hook. It’s manipulative! And also not advised. Mr. Harris brings up philosopher Paul Grice’s cooperative principle, which says that we’re driven by our interest not only in getting along, but that all conversation rests upon our assumption that the other participant is acting in good faith. In practical terms, this means remaining in the shared world of the other person, the middle of the Venn diagram of your lives. Try using words and ideas that they understand and share, which brings you closer to each other than using jargon (“I’m on deadline” versus “Stuck working,” although perhaps they are also “on deadline”).
In the wide spectrum of human emotion, we should not forget panic and mania. If we are to respect and laud our most rational of selves, let us also appreciate the wild and vast landscape of unreasonable reflexes. In situations of mortal danger and fear, the body reacts out of reflex. Lean in — perhaps you will skate away easier than if you approached the situation with even-keeled communication. Let the adrenaline carry you, sink into the “fight or flight” response and see what happens. Channel your worst fear — like saving a dog from a dangerous revolving door, or maybe there’s a speeding car. Bring out that animal urge to let the other person know you will not be taken advantage of, that you know what’s important: Saving yourself.
Darcie Wilder is a writer in New York. Her first book, “literally show me a healthy person,” came out last year. Lorelei Ramirez is an artist, comedian, and writer.
Producer: Tracy Ma
Producer: Alexandra Eaton
Producer: Joanna Nikas
Editor: Shane O’Neill