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Askers, Guessers, and the Power of No

Interesting column by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian (8 May 2010), “Are you an Asker or a Guesser?” The “Asker-Guesser” paradigm seems like bogus pop-analysis, but the first part, I like: just say no and don’t give a reason; giving a reason invites negotiation or argument. I like the ways of saying no: “I’m afraid that won’t be possible”, or “Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night”, or “I can’t, because I’m unable to.” Here’s the opening:

The advice of etiquette experts on dealing with unwanted invitations, or overly demanding requests for favours, has always been the same: just say no. That may have been a useless mantra in the war on drugs, but in the war on relatives who want to stay for a fortnight, or colleagues trying to get you to do their work, the manners guru Emily Post‘s formulation – “I’m afraid that won’t be possible” – remains the gold standard. Excuses merely invite negotiation. The comic retort has its place (Peter Cook: “Oh dear, I find I’m watching television that night”), and I’m fond of the tautological non-explanation (“I can’t, because I’m unable to”). But these are variations on a theme: the best way to say no is to say no. Then shut up.

This is a lesson we’re unable to learn, however, judging by the scores of books promising to help us. The Power Of A Positive No, How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty, The Book Of No… Publishers, certainly, seem unable to refuse. (Two recent books addressing the topic are Marshall Goldsmith’s Mojo, and Womenomics, by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay.) This is the “disease to please” – a phrase that doesn’t make grammatical sense, but rhymes, giving it instant pop-psychology cachet. There are certainly profound issues here, of self-esteem, guilt etcetera. But it’s also worth considering whether part of the problem doesn’t originate in a simple misunderstanding between two types of people: Askers and Guessers.

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  • Misty Khan May 19, 2010, 10:56 am

    One point I thought of when reading this post is that if you list excuses rather than just say “no”, the negotiation you invite may actually be an attempt to help you out because there requestor believes you want to respond positively, but just need a solution for the excuse you have presented. A lot of times we have trouble saying “no” to requests that are perfectly legitimate, but that for whatever reason we can not fulfill. If you know you absolutely cannot or will not do someting, it is best just to say “no” and leave it at that.

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