Are you free tomorrow at 3? I need a favour,’ asked an old acquaintance with an exotic mix of British and Goan accents, the absence of the letter h in the three as obvious as a missing front tooth. I looked up at him, the sun making me squint, causing the reappearance of pesky floaters in my left eye and creating a halo around his curly mop.
‘What do you need?’
‘My girlfriend is having an exhibition at my restaurant. Can you inaugurate it and take some pictures with her for the paper?’
In the decade I have had a home in Goa, I have tried to match my routine to that of a sloth. Each day consists of riding my yellow scooter to the beach, reading books in a hammock and watching the bats parch their thirst in our pool. Cutting a ribbon while grinning for photographers was anathema.
After an awkward pause, I said, ‘Uh…ok, totally no, of course, yes.’ A sentence that made no sense but for the nodding of my head, which indicated an affirmative response.
When he moved on to greet other customers, my friend sitting at the table, with a mouth full of buttered poi, grumbled, ‘I can’t believe you said yes to that.’
‘I didn’t want to,’ I protested, ‘Forget proper clothes, I don’t even have a car here! Do you know how stupid I am going to look arriving for this inauguration in front of the press, on my bloody scooter! Now I have already agreed, so let’s just finish it off.’
I prepared for this momentous event by finding a dingy salon, getting a terrible blow-dry and buying a new dress. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was deserted. Well, aside from a few blue streamers strung across the ceiling and the owner with a white bandage on his head. We discovered his girlfriend had broken up with him. He had then gone on a drinking binge, fallen down a flight of stairs and drunk some more since to numb the pain. He suddenly rose from his mumbling stupor and decided that we must all have a good time. My friend was pulled to dance and unceremoniously twirled out. ABBA’s Dancing Queen interjected with a cry of pain, as she hit her shoulder against a pole. After that he climbed onto the table. Just when I thought there was another bout of stumbling samba on the cards, he passed out, his legs hanging off one end of the table.
We scrambled out with our respective injured bits, her shoulder and my pride. On the way back, she berated me, ‘I told you we should not go, why the hell did you agree to this idiotic thing?’
And the truth came out, ‘I guess, I just didn’t know how to say no.’
I am not the only one who has been in a situation where there is a ‘No’ with an exclamation mark looming inside my head, but a tepid ‘Yes’ pops out of the mouth instead.
This daft exchange happens for myriad reasons. From worrying about acceptance and wanting to avoid criticism, to fear of the consequences linked to refusal.
Also, coming across as an agreeable, likable person is a hardwired evolutionary instinct.
In the Paleolithic age, if members of the tribe did not like you, then during scarcity, guess who would go without food, or perhaps even find themselves tied to a log and roasting over a fire? Clearly not Ms Popular with a wide smile and ability to nod enthusiastically. Though we no longer depend as strongly on approval in order to survive, we still find it difficult to turn people down.
No is a fortress that can shield us from wasting time and energy.
Yes is the drawbridge that lets others inside our domain. If the drawbridge is pulled down repeatedly then we end up overwhelmed. On the other hand, if always sealed, then we end up missing out. Balance, as boring as it sounds when prescribed as part of a nutrition plan, is the key.
In the last month itself I have been asked to ‘Write a foreword for my book.’‘Have another helping, mami ji made the halwa herself.’ ‘Ask your husband to make a video wishing my cousin’s son happy birthday!’ ‘Try some sheesha, don’t be a bore.’ ‘Can you help rewrite my daughter’s college essay?’ ‘Since you loved mami ji’s halwa, have some ladoos, she has made them only for you!’
If I agreed to all these requests, I would be an obese, stressed out wreck with eventual impaired lung function. In the end, I did cave in to some because I didn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. I then set out to discover how to say no gracefully. Here is what I found.
The Mannat policy: In a podcast by Tim Ferris, he talks about well-crafted rejection letters that people sent him for his book. He says these letters are successful at their task because they don’t make the recipient feel that it’s personal. Each one explained their predicament and then added different iterations of ‘Turning down things as a blanket policy’.
When I asked a cousin what she does to get out of situations, she gave me the Indian version of a blanket policy, ‘Oh, I just say I can’t do it because I have taken a mannat.’
The Timely Pause: Tweak’s editor suggested the buying more time strategy. Stalling is also advocated by psychotherapist Julie Bjelland. ‘Let me think about it and get back to you’ gives you enough time to evaluate the request and come up with the right words to reject it.
The Switcheroo method: Providing an alternative is my favourite because, along with appeasing others, it makes me feel less guilty as well. ‘Come over for a drink and don’t make any more excuses,’ was a friend’s slightly annoyed request. Considering my New Year’s Eve hangover left me feeling like I would have suffered less if I’d have contracted a moderate case of Covid-19, I shot back with, ‘I would love to, but I’m not drinking these days, let’s go for a walk instead!’ and our equation veered back from being as frozen as her recently renovated forehead.
The Speechless Spell: This relies on shock value. The other person is so taken aback that they can’t protest. ‘I can’t yaar, I am feeling guilty, I haven’t spent enough time with my cat,’ is a frequent excuse used by a co-worker. Then it’s things like, ‘My astrologer says I have to avoid going out on Fridays.’
One of the best excuses I have heard came from a well-known actress who told a common friend, ‘I can’t come darling because I have a boil on my bum.’ No further questions were ever asked.
If only I had thought of this inventive pretext when I had been invited to the disastrous inauguration. Often, the ability to say no, boils down to, not just a carbuncle, but having a well-rehearsed, unverifiable excuse.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE