Re: In Praise of No

We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

—William Zinsser, On Writing Well

No!  No!  Noooo!  No!

—My Two-Year-Old Son

There is no more important word in the workplace than “No.”  It is not used enough.  If asked to work overtime or work on the weekend or to take on an added responsibility that will require driving on the freeway after dark just say, “No.”  Say it emphatically.  Say it with conviction.  Say it quickly.  It offers many advantages.  It’s a short word.  Its meaning is clear and concise.  Almost no one will need to ask, “What exactly do you mean by that?”  Many toddlers understand it which means many of your superiors will grasp its simplicity.  It saves an immense amount of energy compared to the long explanations usually given and its bluntness will leave inquisitors so confused they will start sending their resumes out by the end of the week.

Sometimes, however, “No” is not the appropriate answer.  Managers often phrase their requests like this: “Can you work tonight?” or “Can you work this weekend?”  This presents a small dilemma to discerning employees who take words literally, but the following answer should suffice:  “Can I?  Yes, but I’m not going to.”  If an inexperienced boss asks, “Do you want to work tonight?” employees should explain their genuine desires as succinctly as possible.  “No.”  The proper question should be, “Will you work tonight?” and the proper answer is, “No.”  And it should be “No” period.  An explanation is not necessary.  Management has no right to know what their fellow employees do with their time or a right to make judgments about what constitutes a legitimate reason to deny a request to destroy a relaxing evening or leisurely weekend.  If they want to know why, tell them:  “I don’t want to.”  Not wanting to work is a legitimate reason.

Supervisors, however, will persist, particularly if they sense the slightest bit of hesitation or uncertainty.  If they really want  an explanation–something you do not have to reveal to them–and you want to give them one, tell them the truth.  In today’s business environment truth is a powerful weapon.  People are not used to it and it easily baffles those who only know how to speak in cliches.  For instance, you might say, “The reason I am not going to work is as follows: I am in the middle of a good book and I plan to meander home, fix a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, grab a cold beer and read until I fall asleep in the hammock under our shade tree.  My spouse and I have a late afternoon and early evening of massages and love-making planned, followed by dinner at our favorite hole-in-the-wall.  I hope to be in bed no later than nine when I shall continue the book I just mentioned until my eyelids inform me I should quit.  Sleep will be blissful.  If you have any further questions please direct them to me tomorrow on company time as I am now off the clock.  Have a nice day.”

If you say “No” often enough managers will know your answer before they ask.  Though not easily discouraged, eventually, after five or six years, they will stop asking.  Welcome to Nirvana.  Who they will ask are those who never say “No.”  That first “No” for people who always say “Yes” can be difficult, especially when management is being pressured to attain statistics that have no relation to the reality of the job or to meet an urgent deadline that miraculously gets moved back after you have worked all weekend trying meet it.  Whoops!  It is not selfish to leave the beloved company in dire straits when those straits occur more often than overused sitcom premises that revolve around the infinite, drawn-out loop of one-sided, frustrated courtship, constant sex, heartbreaking split followed by barrages of sarcastic barbs.

This is not television.  This is life.  Employees are responsible for their own lives.  They cannot depend upon the corporation to fulfill their most necessary needs.  Baltasar Gracián, a Jesuit priest from the seventeenth century, put it this way:

One of life’s great lessons lies in knowing how to refuse, and it is even more important to refuse yourself, both to business and to others. . . . To be prudent, it isn’t enough not to meddle in other people’s business: you must also keep them from meddling in yours.  Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself.

Amen and amen and amen!

The Corporate Asylum’s first annual “NO!” Convention will take place in January of 2000.  Learn all the basics of this extremely versatile word.  Seminars will include: “No For Fun and Sanity,”  “No For the Salaried Employee,”  “No For the Hourly Employee,”  “No is a Two Letter Word,”  “Beyond No,”  “The Joy of No,”  “The History of No,”  “The Future of No,”  “Know No,”  “No Time for Yes,”  “A No is a No is a No,” “The Return of No” and “My Search for the Ultimate No.”

Works Cited:

  • Zinsser, William, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, N.Y., 1980, pg. 7.
  • Gracián, Baltasar, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, translated by Christopher Maurer, A Currency Book, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1992, pg. 19.

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