Why Everyone Needs To Learn How To Say “No”

happystock / (Shutterstock.com)
happystock / (Shutterstock.com)

In 2000 I was still unpublished, with aspirations of becoming an author. One of the big reasons why this was such an aspiration of mine was due to my day job: working at Goldman Sachs. There was something so cult-like about the environment that even now I find it hard to understand how so many brilliant, talented people accepted it.

The objective at Goldman was simple: Everyone was there to help The Firm. It was the Soviet organizational wet dream made horrifyingly real by capitalism. I would call it ironic but for the fact that there was never any irony in the Goldman offices. As an example, we each had a forty-hour workweek with a certain number of days off. Yet if I took a “day off,” then I simply had four ten-hour days instead of the standard pattern. There wasn’t a break. The Firm needed me.

To be fair, it wasn’t all bad because Goldman had laser printers for me to exploit. One day as I was surreptitiously printing copies of my manuscript, one of my colleagues complained about it. “Someone’s printing a book,” she said. She wasn’t upset that, say, she had to wait for the printer to finish. “It’s a waste of firm resources!” she explained. A waste of firm resources. Who would ever say that outside of a movie? Every day when I spoke to my teammates, I always had one thought running through my head: Is this who you wanted to grow up to be?

Our team provided tech support for The Firm. We were fielding calls 365/24/7 from all over the world. We supported the entire Microsoft suite—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access—and several other programs. The job consisted of the phone ringing and then us hearing some frantic banker needing help with something that had gone horribly wrong. Given that these callers were usually quite smart and fairly tech-savvy, the solutions weren’t, “Is your computer plugged in?” It was extremely intense, like living in a game show for eight hours a day.

I excelled at the job. We had a metric that we used to determine our success entitled “kudos.” If a user sent our boss an unsolicited email praising our work, we scored one point—and I scored more than the rest of my team combined. That’s because I made the marginally clever observation that the person calling in hysterics didn’t really want an answer right away. What they wanted was reassurance, to know that their problem was in capable hands and would be resolved as quickly as was humanly possible. They wanted to have someone to take responsibility. By the time you’re calling tech support you’ve tried everything else and are starting to fear that there isn’t an answer. I came to this banal insight simply by putting myself in the bankers’ shoes and thinking like them for five seconds—as opposed to my automatongoloid colleagues who were quite taken with The Firm’s “Best Practices.” They never even considered whether calming the caller down might be more important than, say, asking them twenty or so technical questions without a hint of empathy.

Soon it came time for my review.

“Sometimes when the call volume slows down,” my boss said, “you go surf the Internet. This is Goldman Sachs and these things get noticed. We would like it if you went to help out the laptop lab when it’s slow on the phones.”

We didn’t choose whether to take calls or not. The system was programmed to route calls evenly across the team so your workload was both proportional and out of your hands. Given that, I didn’t see much of a problem in taking a breather in between intense tech calls. It’s not as if I was looking at anything marginally inappropriate—this was Goldman Sachs and those things get noticed, right? (Who talks like that?) I could have explained all this to my boss, but I feared a long argument.

“No,” I said.

“What?”

“No.”

The word was literally incomprehensible to her. It was clear she’d never heard it in an evaluation meeting. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I don’t know anything about laptops, I wasn’t hired to support laptops, and I’m not interested in learning about laptops. No.”

“O…K…”

It was almost like I was in an afterschool special, because I learned a lesson that has served me well until today. My friend Marcia Baczynski (co-founder of Cuddle Party) later defined it far more succinctly than I ever did: People take as much space as you give them. There’s this idea that if you say yes, just this one time, that person won’t ask again the next time. But why wouldn’t they? The best indicator of future behavior is past performance. The odds are quite high that someone who said yes in the past will say yes in the future. That’s the basis of all human relationships, building on past agreement for future cooperation.

What happens is that you smile and nod, doing something that you don’t want to do while the other person is blissfully unaware of your preferences. If they’re good people, they’d feel terrible about putting you in an uncomfortable position. If they’re bad, you don’t owe them your allegiance anyway. In either case, both parties involved are being forced into an uncomfortable but avoidable situation.

One person’s cooperation is another’s imposition. The idea that people will respect your boundaries is a fantasy, because they don’t have the information as to where those boundaries end. Only you do, and telling them “no” is what defines those boundaries for them. This is why learning to say “no” is so crucial.

As obvious as this sounds, it runs counter to much of the prevailing culture. We are constantly exhorted to say “yes” to life and to avoid negativity. Hell, I’ve heard that negativity can literally encourage cancer to grow. The culture is steeped in inclusiveness and positivity—so to exclude oneself from a given activity often reads as a repudiation rather than just declining politely. It’s even in our genes. Michael Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate found that toddlers have an innate urge to be cooperative and help others. Saying “no” isn’t just antisocial—it’s downright unnatural. This is why learning to say “no” is so difficult.

But though it’s difficult and crucial, the alternative is awful. Learning to say “no” is how we define ourselves as people. It’s the border between the self and those who view you as a resource. Over ten years later, I still have no regrets about putting my foot down at The Firm. I’ve never owned a laptop, either. But I do own my own printer, and I make my living as an author. And I’ll always be thankful to the cretins at The Firm for forcing me to learn how to say no. TC mark

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