Cannot Come. Lie Follows.
In a consumerist society, refusal is an act of resistance. How to say 'no' without hurting people
This is an exclusive post for paid subscribers only. These monthly posts are light essays in the vein of my book Zen Style, in which I’ll discuss practical ideas for a countercultural, mindful, anti-consumerist lifestyle.
Steve Jobs is far from a hero of mine, but he did get a few things right.
At a developers conference in 1997, he explained:
“People think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. Focusing is about saying ‘no,‘ You’ve got to say ‘no, no, no’ and when you say ‘no,’ you piss off people.”
Being self-employed, I often fall into the trap of saying ‘yes’ to any opportunity – who knows when the next one will come along? – even at the expense of my own well-being.
Last year, I took on some jobs that left me feeling empty and disappointed – projects that weren’t any fun, didn’t teach me anything new and sometimes didn’t even make good money.
I vowed to identify and refuse these projects in 2024, but saying ‘no’ is difficult because, well, you tend to piss off people.
I am still learning to say ‘no’ in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone, but doesn’t make me feel guilty either.
Being rejected is painful. There’s value in choosing our words wisely so we don’t unnecessarily hurt people’s feelings.
One good approach is to combine honesty and humour.
This works in private settings – just be brutally transparent and follow up with a self-deprecating joke.
In Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, Monsieur de Guermantes famously answers an invitation via telegram:
“Cannot come. Lie follows.”
In a business context, this strategy needs adaptation; it might be deemed unprofessional.
The communication expert William Ury wrote a good book that deals with expressing respectful rejections, “The Power of a Positive No”.
Ury tells us to always follow three simple steps: Start with a positive affirmation, then decline politely but assertively, and end on a helpful suggestion.
Let’s look at a specific example.