If You Can't Say 'Yes,' Don't Say Anything At All

Are we forgetting how to say "no"?
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All over America, people are disappearing without a trace.

Lovers, friends: here one day and gone the next, ghosts vaporizing into the mist. At least, if they’re not liking your Instagram selfies and texting you sweet emojis, do they really exist? It doesn't feel like they do.

What once was difficult has now become as easy as that: Breaking things off made as simple as not texting, not emailing, not calling. No “sorry, I have to wash my hair tonight.” No “it’s not you, it’s me.” No “I met someone else.” No “no.”

We seem to have become a nation of wafflers and avoiders, carefully evading even the most quotidian confrontation. It's not just in the realm of dating, either. "I see this in college classrooms all the time," linguist Naomi Baron told me, "that people are less willing to take positions on anything." Nothing stakes out a position more firmly, and more provocatively, than "no," and increasingly, it's far easier to simply not say it.

When We Gave Up On "No"

Now, like most generations, millennials are given to feeling special. If it seems harder than ever to get a clear “yes” or “no” out of someone, who’s to say that’s unique to us? Maybe that’s just how it feels to grow up, to be surrounded by adults with too-full plates and a mature awareness of the awkwardness occasioned by saying “no” when one could tell a white lie.

In a way, even the modern epidemic of ghosting differs only superficially from more well-established ways we’ve found to reject people without confrontation -- lying about the reason, continually saying we’re busy until the message is received, asking our friend to deliver the message. (Other people do that, right?) These methods, like ghosting, leave the rejected without answers. And it’s a lot easier to use them than it is to say, “No, I’m not interested.”

“We may have changed the language we use, but the sentiment is not a new one and is not one that’s unique to this generation,” Baron told me. She, as well as other experts I spoke to, recalled the transparent lies that were once the best way to say "no" without saying it. “When I met someone in person I thought was unattractive I’d have to … lie and say ‘I’m busy for the next two years’ or something,” offered lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower as a (generic, not personal) example.

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But why do we struggle so much with saying “no”? The impulse to go with the flow is more deeply ingrained than many of us realize, says Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell, who studies the social psychology of rejection. “It’s a social norm to say ‘yes,’ and breaking that social norm and saying ‘no’ is awkward and embarrassing,” said Bohns.

Her studies have suggested that we vastly overestimate others' willingness to say no to our own requests. She pointed to the politeness theory put forth by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in 1978 -- well before millennials were even twinkles in their parents’ eyes -- which argued that in social interactions, both parties tend to avoid behaviors that will cause overt damage to each other’s public face, or self-image.

Saying “no” to a direct request publicly suggests that the request was unacceptable or objectionable, which is a body blow to the requester’s face -- which in turn creates an uncomfortable social situation for the rejecter. Bohns’s studies on persuasion have suggested that “it can ultimately be more effort to say ‘no’ politely than to just go ahead and do whatever was asked,” she says.

In social contexts, this gets a bit more complicated. It’s easier to simply fill out a short survey or help carry a box -- or even vandalize a library book -- than it is to grapple with the awkwardness of turning someone down, but committing to a full evening or more of unwanted togetherness can be a heavy price to pay for this conflict-avoidance. Suddenly we find we have phantom prior engagements the night of our frenemy’s holiday party or a skeazy suitor’s proposed dinner. These face-saving maneuvers extricate us from commitments without the actual unpleasantness of saying, aloud, “No.”

A "No" By Any Other Name

Still, saying, “Oh, I can’t, I have a … a thing” isn’t as different from saying “no” as it may once have seemed. The more commonly an excuse is used as a disingenuous excuse, the more transparent the ruse. Do we really believe it anymore when an acquaintance tells us he’s just “too busy” to schedule lunch, or that she "didn’t even see" our email asking her to sponsor to your charity 5k?

The plausibility of an excuse depends on most instances of its deployment being true. So “I have a doctor’s appointment” remains a reliable standby -- doctors aren’t going anywhere, and most of the time that appointment is probably real. But the more we exploit vague forces outside our control to function as a gentle brushoff, the more obvious it becomes that we’re all probably lying to each other. The first person who told the girl he was dating, “I’m just too busy with work right now for a relationship” -- he probably got away with that. These days, it sounds like a thin cover for a break-up conversation he doesn’t want to have. How often, after all, is that excuse used any other way?

As polite language for avoiding commitments becomes routinized, it becomes transparent, closer and closer to the bluntness of actually saying “no.” Think of how laughable we now find the excuse of "I can't go out with you; I have to wash my hair tonight." The ways we avoid saying “no” evolve and shift accordingly.

“In the United States, we find different words at different time periods that are hedge words. Maybe. Sure,” said Baron. "That word 'sure' does not mean 'sure' any more than 'LOL' means 'laughing out loud.'"

A firm yes, on the other hand, needs to be delivered with enthusiasm. Which sounds more like a definite “yes”: “Yeah,” or “Absolutely”? The lack of unmitigated enthusiasm can read as hedging or veiled rejection -- thus our suspicion of “maybe,” “sure,” "OK" and “fine.” “I think there’s always been a tendency for exaggeration, especially in more colloquial circumstances,” says Sheidlower. “It can’t just be good, it has to be great. It can’t just be great, it has to be awesome. You’re struggling for forever more praiseful adjectives. Eventually you run out, there aren’t any more terms left.”

So… then what?

How We Say "No" Now

The rise of digital communication has inarguably disrupted the classic etiquette of the white lie and the polite evasion. “I would say that millennials are more likely to say ‘no’ because they are less likely to make and receive requests face-to-face,” says Bohns.

But what does saying “no” actually mean in this context? When most of our conversations take place via email, text and social media, rejection can be as simple as failing to respond -- a strategy that’s painfully rude when someone is standing in front of you, asking you for something. “Most of the people we counted as ‘no's’ in our email study simply didn't respond,” concedes Bohns, referring to a study tracking whether people were more likely to respond to a survey when approached via email or in person. “In face-to-face interactions [...] you could just walk away or pretend that you didn't hear something to get out of doing something.” Of course, she says, “it's pretty rare in face-to-face contexts because it would make the interaction incredibly awkward.”

In person, it is extremely uncomfortable and bizarre to ignore an acquaintance who’s trying to ask you out; instead, you reach for a tepid excuse. Fortunately, there’s little need to say, “Thanks, but I have to do laundry that night,” when you can ignore a text instead.

On OkCupid, cofounder Christian Rudder says, “Rejection almost always takes the form of silence. A message from a man to a woman gets nothing back 80 percent of the time. That’s not bad!” he hastens to add.

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When it comes to online dating, silence may be the best rejection. Few if any pre-Internet dating scenes allowed for such high-volume, rapid-fire propositioning. “It’s hard for someone to answer 50 messages in a day,” says Rudder. “Most people understand that you’re just not going to get a reply to every message.” Very few women got asked out 50 times a day before the advent of online dating, and most of us realize that having to turn that many people down can be too overwhelming to face. Part of the price for the convenience and options of online dating may be sacrificing the old-school norms of courteous response and gentle excuse in favor of, well, nothing.

Still, some do respond to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Rudder, also the author of Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity -- What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves, calls these “false positives” in their messaging data, which track how many exchanges happen in a single OkCupid conversation thread. “We go all the way to four [messages exchanged] now” to account for these rejection replies, he says. Long-standing etiquette guidelines aside, it may be more uncomfortable for everyone involved to say “no thanks” to a Match.com message than to convey a lack of interest with silence.

You can’t simply ignore everyone, though, not even online. What if that person is your mom, or your S.O., or an old friend? The rules still seem to be evolving. When communicating over text or email, “You don’t necessarily have the kinds of cues that you get normally because you don’t have facial expressions,” says Sheidlower. “Is the person being not that enthusiastic?” You can’t mumble “yeah” halfheartedly or yelp it excitedly; all the other person sees are the cold, hard letters.

The human race, however, is nothing if not linguistically inventive. Scores of cultural language think pieces have pondered the use of ellipses, periods, capitalization, emoji, gifs and specific word choices to signal sincerity and enthusiasm -- or the lack thereof -- in the digital age. Even your friends will get the hint that you're unexcited if you respond with "Maybe ... " (If you get this text, consider that a "No.")

Even better, it’s never been easier to postpone actually making a commitment to saying “yes” or “no.” “Sounds good, I’ll text you tomorrow!” is akin to a yes, but simple enough to walk back the next day just by not following up or using a last-minute excuse (“Sorry, so exhausted -- another time?”). With instant communication at our fingertips, we can run late or cancel at any moment, whereas just a couple decades ago we were bound to show up at the right place and time, as planned.

Rich Ling, who studies mobile communication, notes that his studies reveal an unprecedented level of vagueness about prior planning. Young millennials, he says, “might have two or three threads going at any given time. Some of these might coalesce into an actual event, and others might not.” Ultimately, this indecisive juggling of social options means “more indeterminacy when thinking about informal social interactions,” he says. When it comes to ignoring invites, "The degree to which it is seen as rude depends on the degree to which the sender weighs the importance of the invitation." So promising to attend a more planned-out event, like a birthday dinner, is still considered a commitment; backing out with a last-minute message doesn’t come across well, he adds.

Still, if you avoid saying “yes,” you can prolong the horrifying point of committing to something you’re not sure about. The existence of a “maybe” option on Facebook may be the most institutionalized concession to our modern reluctance to send an RSVP more than a few minutes in advance.

Whether you decide to show up or not, the host can’t complain -- you did say “maybe.”

No: Who Needs It?

In the flurry of think pieces and societal angst over ghosting, it might seem as though the practice came into being with Tinder and smartphones. Despite this current panic, ghosting didn’t arrive with texting; what about good, old-fashioned pretending to be dead? Or pretending to have moved to Antarctica to study the mating habits of penguins? (Seriously, though, I did move to Antarctica, if someone named Derek asks.)

Disappearing without a trace possesses a particularly modern brutality, all the same. It’s saying no without saying anything, not from any particular creativity or desperation but simply because we now can so easily. If "Sex and the City" were being created now, there would be a lot fewer tense break-ups and a lot more scenes of Carrie waiting for a text that never comes from a guy she'd been dating for months. When Berger breaks up with her on a Post-It, she smashes a vase in fury. Now, that analog note seems almost sentimental compared to today's ghosting epidemic.

At least she had an answer, no matter that it was only seven words.

“Back in the day ... if some guy wanted you to go out, and you didn’t want to go, but you were 15 and you didn’t know how to say, ‘No, I think you’re a creep,’ you’d say, ‘I’m busy, I can’t,’” Baron recalled. “You didn’t have the social skills yet.” She seems to take for granted that this tactic is born of youth, but if teenagers can't handle the truth, they're not alone -- at least these days. Teens and adults alike have even less effortful ways to give the brush-off, by simply vanishing from our romantic interests’ inboxes and DMs.

Why would we, in a world that offers negligible consequences for such behavior and the tempting reward of a no-muss break-up? We live in a world of silence and "yes," and maybe we actually prefer it that way.

In this world, we're just so rarely threatened with "no" that the word itself seems to be losing its teeth. Older, more proper English speakers often flinch when young servers jovially say "No problem!" after being thanked for performing their duties. It implies, many argue, that it might be expected that you're causing a problem to the person you're paying for food. But "no" formulations simply don't mean what they used to. Look at phrases like "no, totally" and "yeah, no" -- both of which, almost universally, mean "yes."

"No problem," despite the discomfort it causes some, doesn't actually mean "there is no problem." It means "You're welcome," or "Happy to help," and is typically delivered with the same sheer positivity.

In these cases, throwing in a "no" implies no weighty negative connotation; it's almost a replacement for "um." Our age-old horror of rejecting people has finally evolved to this point: We've found pathways to almost completely avoid ever directly rejecting someone, and our old bogeyman, "no," has become a harmless shell.

After all, if you were going to say "no," you'd find a nicer way to non-say it.

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