Opinion | The art of saying “no”

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

At the heart and soul of improv is the saying “Yes! And … ” If your partner decides you’re on a spaceship headed straight for Mars, you say, “Yes! And we’re going to collect rock samples.” If your partner decides you are archrivals playing in a state soccer championship, you say, “Yes! And I just scored the winning goal.” It’s all about being agreeable and adaptable.

Life, however, is not a game of improv. Yet many of us still feel it’s unacceptable to say anything but “yes.” We agree to help friends with projects, even if it means we may struggle to finish our own. We sign up for clubs that we’re not interested in just because the person at the Activities Fair gave us puppy dog eyes.

We shy away from assertion or defection even if it’s what we should be doing. While saying no can feel uncomfortable and even unnatural, recognizing we don’t always have to agree is instrumental in protecting our mental health, prioritizing our schedule and standing up for ourselves.

Dara Blaine, a Los Angeles-based career coach, explains that we often view saying yes as a necessary step to demonstrate commitment and drive.

“We live in a ‘yes’ culture, where it’s expected that the person who is going to get ahead is the go-getter who says yes to everything that comes their way,” said Blaine.

This need to seem affable often leads us to view personal stress and chaos as a necessary hurdle to appease others. We overextend our time, energy and finances to make others more comfortable. This problem proves especially pervasive for women and minority groups, who are often seen as more palatable if they’re compliant and agreeable. This phenomenon is seemingly omnipresent, especially in the media.

At the 2019 Tony Awards, Ali Stroker, star of “Oklahoma!,” won with her performance of “I Can’t Say No.” The number tells the perils of Ado Annie, a young woman who struggles with saying no to men’s advances. A BuzzFeed video entitled “I Only Said ‘Yes’ To My Kids For A Week” gained more than 17 million views, igniting a trend on the platform. Business professionals say they got where they are today by being up for anything. A 2019 Allegra ad says “Yes is the first word of any new discovery!” Seemingly everything we consume — entertainment, marketing campaigns and even professional advice — is rooted in this “yes” culture.

In their book, “Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much,” Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral scientist at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir, an economist at Princeton, explain that people tend to have a counterintuitive response to being overextended. They found that the busier people are, the harder it is to say “no” to another task. In other words, we fall into the mentality of “what’s one more,” resulting in a never-ending cycle of stress and infeasible to-dos.

Luckily, Kathryn J. Lively, Ph.D., dean of the College of Sociology at Dartmouth, explains that this phenomenon has deep-seated roots but is not as complex as we might think.

“This is not some immutable gene or biological defect,” Lively said. “Rather, it’s actually a socially learned coping mechanism that can, with a little time and attention, be unlearned.”

By exchanging this mentality with a greater understanding of when “no” is the right response, we can better take care of ourselves and even better serve those around us. Making small changes in the ways we approach saying yes and no can have tangible effects on our daily lives.

A 2012 study from the Journal of Consumer Research found that simply replacing the phrase “I can’t” with “I don’t” allowed participants to say “no” more confidently and with conviction. This phrase sets sturdy boundaries and leaves little room for further pleading.

For example, if someone tabling outside the William Pitt Union asks for your participation in a psychology study, replace saying “I can’t do that right now, I’m sorry!” with “I don’t participate in those but thank you!”

Students are typically bombarded with requests from all angles, ranging from sitting in on studies, attending guest lectures or tutoring peers. Samuel R. Sommers, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, warns the prestige or experience of participating in these opportunities is not always worth it.

“You want to be a good citizen and contribute to your department, university or discipline, but sometimes by saying yes, you just wind up getting asked more and more,” Sommers said. “There’s a fine line between being a conscientious citizen and being a pushover who’s taking too much of a burden on for other people.”

Participating in your favorite professor’s latest research does look great on a resumé, but ensure that you’re not preventing yourself from having time to finish homework and other tasks already on your plate.

Additionally, a study at Stanford University found that when asked twice, participants were more likely to oblige a request even if they previously said no. So, if you muster up the courage to say no, stick to your guns. Reinforcing your boundaries is critical in prioritizing your own health and needs.

A 2006 Study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that making a specific plan of action and rehearsing a response to a possibly nerve-wracking situation increased the chances subjects would respond in line with their original intentions. Before you respond, remind yourself of your needs and intentions and then commit to firmly articulating them.
This mindset is all about practice. Learning to say no to questions like “Do you have time to look this over for me?” or “Can I pick your brain about your major?” can help us firmly say no to questions like “Are you comfortable with this?” or “Is everything okay?”

We’re in the midst of a stressful time for most college students. The 600 clubs at Pitt are trying to get you to attend their first meetings. Sports and music organizations are holding tryouts. The dozens of businesses around Oakland are looking for employees to help survive the back-to-school rush. There’s no more important time to care for your own needs by respectfully, but firmly, saying “yes” to saying “no.”