Let’s face it. Confrontation sucks, but doing something you genuinely don’t want to do sucks even more. Yet, letting people down easy can be anything but. For women, general advice for dealing with confrontation falls into two categories: how to shut up and smile, and on the other extreme, how to physically defend yourself. Don't get me wrong, the latter (unfortunately) has plenty of practical applications, but life often presents us with unchartered in-betweens.
Here are some tips I’ve picked up that make the seemingly impossible a little bit more possible. I’ll start in the office and end in the bar: how to say no to your boss and how to say no that creepy guy who means well. Hopefully he means well, anyway.
1. Remember: whether personal or professional, saying yes when you don’t actually mean it is mutually destructive.
If someone asks you to do something that you cannot actually do, saying “yes” is the worst thing you can do for both parties involved. At best, you’re going to scramble and turn in something subpar. At worst, you’re going to let them down entirely or put yourself in physical, emotional or financial danger trying to meet unrealistic expectations. If I was going skydiving and asked you to fly the plane, you’d tell me you weren’t a pilot. The same is true when your boss asks you to do something that you're too busy for, or when a friend asks how far away you are and you say “a couple of blocks” instead of “at least twenty minutes.” Information works best as a public utility, and you can’t change the facts by fibbing.
2. Sorry isn’t a solution. You don’t have to apologize.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but women apologize more than men. Often we do it because we want to be likable, or because we are afraid of upsetting the chain of command. I get it. We’re just trying to be nice, but saying “I’m sorry” implies that you are to blame which can make you look like a pushover, a jerk, or a pushover who also happens to be a jerk. If the expectation is unrealistic, you’re not wrong for saying “no.” Apologizing first implies that you are. “Sorry” also muddles your intention and makes it appear that the “no” is negotiable. Use “sorry” sparingly and only when you really mean it. You’re sorry when you drop a baby. You’re not sorry when you're questioning a boss's logic.
3. If words aren't working, a little body language might help.
You’re out at a bar drinking with your friends, and someone comes up to you and won’t leave you the hell alone. Try this: Introduce yourself and ask the rude interrupter’s name. Say, “so nice to meet you [interrupter’s name here.] I hope you enjoy the rest of your night,” and then gently push the interrupter’s shoulder away, or release his or her hand from the handshake in a way that points his or her physical energy away from you. Don’t be MMA about it, but create a physical boundary that he or she would have to cross in order to stay in the unwanted conversation. Hopefully, they’ll either catch the hint or want to save face enough to leave. People who are semi-oblivious to social cues are rarely totally oblivious to a physical interaction. If he escalates, keep ignoring. If he still escalates, you may want to enlist the help of the staff, or leave if you feel unsafe.
4. Be koi in a fish pond. Don’t be coy in the dating pool.
It can be tempting to give a solid "maybe" and try to come up with excuses later, but a firm no is worth its weight in “I’ll hit you back next week," or in trying to telepathically communicate to your friend across the bar that you need to be rescued from your current conversation. The truth isn’t as scary as you might think, and getting out of the habit of white lies will set you free. “I’m not good at time management, and am running fifteen minutes behind.” “So nice to meet you. I’m going to get back to my friends now.” Or my personal favorite, and one that took me over 20 years to be comfortable saying to people I’ve just met, “I don’t really like hugging people. How ‘bout we high five instead?” Telling the simple truth takes much less overhead than coming up with a complicated lie. As an added bonus, people will value your honesty and take what you say more seriously when you say it.
5. Remember: You are less likely to regret using firm language, than you will regret being forced to do something you do not want to do.
You know how sometimes a guy wants to hook up and you don't, but also you don’t want to make it weird or have him hate you? Sexy time “no’s” are the hardest of all, in no small part because a lot of the language we have to describe them are pretty high stakes. Barring a systemic re-definition of “consent” and a global neutralization of a sexual gender hierarchy, each of us is on her own when it comes to communicating what feels right and what feels like a major violation. A very small percentage of sexual assaults are reported, in part because the phrase “sexual assault” is scary, and those who encounter it are often reluctant to give it such a heavy label. Without jeopardizing your physical safety, never ever ever be afraid to use words like, “stop” or “no.” Suffering through a super awkward make-out session is way worse than going through a super awkward rejection of a proposed but non consensual make-out session. Even if it ruins a friendship, consider the risk/reward. Don’t say nothing because it feels easier than saying no. It isn’t easier in the end.
If he doesn't honor your "no," that is, of course, a violation of an entirely different order.
6. Find the “no”that is right for you.
“No,” isn’t the only thing that means “no.” “Let’s get some water,” or “this isn’t my thing,” can also mean no. I stand by what I say about not being coy, but there is something to be said about finding the language of “no” that works for you. Maybe you’re a joke-person. Maybe you find honesty far from brutal. The point is, you don’t have to be super serious in order to deliver a super serious “no.” Social norms have a weird way of making us want to say the thing we think we’re supposed to say, but if everyone did that all the time, literally no information would ever be exchanged, and civilization would break down entirely. You as a human being have wants, needs and limitations. Learning how to communicate them in your own way will make you happier, and if you’re happy, people around you will be happy, too. Even if you’re saying “no.” Know what I mean?