How to Say “No” the Polite Way

If there are two immutable truths known to every New Yorker, they are these: 1) let the people off the train before you get on and 2) never take an unmarked car home from the airport.

Of course there are times when you’ve just flown from SFO to JFK with a two-year-old and your flight was delayed and you don’t feel like waiting in the taxi stand line (it exists for a reason!) and the people purporting to be with Uber are so eager that you get in the car with them anyway, even though they probably don’t work for Uber.

Last night I was charged double the standard cab fare. Here’s the part that bothers me: I didn’t say anything. Heck, I even tipped the guy 15%! I knew this was going to happen. This is what happens when you get in an unmarked car and don’t ask about price beforehand. While my driver was making small talk about how many kids he has, I spent the whole ride planning out what I was going to say when he overcharged me (“What? I fly through JFK all the time and have never been charged more than X.”) I don’t care about the money. I figure cab drivers probably need it more than I do. But I’m notoriously bad at speaking up and when the time came, I just froze.

Not a big deal? I’ve got you another one. Last year on my way to church a man on the train insisted that I take his seat. I didn’t want to. I declined once, he insisted adamantly, and I sat down. Still unperturbed? He followed me off the train and took my stroller from me, carrying Zoe up the stairs still without a firm “no” from me. I’ve had help on subway stairs many times. This wasn’t it. Then he followed me all the way to church asking me increasingly personal and inappropriate questions, like where was my boyfriend, was I happily married, and topping it all of with a dogged insistence on my phone number.

And through all of this, did I say “no?” Did I give any indication at all that I was uncomfortable? On the contrary, I answered every single one of his questions. I’m not an idiot. I know intellectually the thing is to say “no.” And I couldn’t do it. I dodged out of the phone number question, but only by helping him find me on Facebook. Great move, right? From this poor guy’s perspective, he had every reason to believe I was encouraging him.

I could say something about how hard it is to be a woman or about how that man should have known that his behavior was uncalled for, but that would be a misdiagnosis of the problem. Obviously I’ve never been taught how to be assertive with strangers, but it runs deeper than that. The problem is that I, like so many other people, have been trained to please others. This ranges from saying “please” and “thank you,” to giggling when someone compliments me, to hugging family members on command. Seems like innocent stuff, but think about where it leads before asking it of your children. This habit is so deeply ingrained and so addictive that I don’t say anything in these varied circumstances because I am afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.¬†

That’s insane. True crazy talk. Of course I’m not aware of it at the time. In the moment, all I know is that I freeze up. But this is why. I’m too focused on finding the right words. I don’t think I’m worth it. My free agency or money or time is not worth a complete stranger’s momentary discomfort.

This may seem like an odd answer because there are times I have been completely unaffected by pressure. Saying no to alcohol in college. Saying no to my husband or my parents (… Actually I probably do that too much). I can’t explain why it surfaces more in some circumstances than others, but it helps to be aware of this and not beat myself up on the times that I choke.

This deep addiction to people-pleasing also impacts the way I interact with friends. Oftentimes I have a particular insight that could greatly benefit someone I care about, transform the entire way they raise their children or the way they approach marriage, but I don’t say anything out of the fear of offending them. Great reason to withhold the secret to happiness, am I right?

There is no way to say “no” without hurting someone. Not unless you want to live out the rest of your life shackled to the demands of other people.

It’s a miserable way to live and can only be changed with practice. I’m moving to a deeper level of honesty with my friends and I figure the $60 I burned last night was the training cost. Who else is with me?


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