The Lies We Tell Instead of Saying “No”

Why we do it and what to say instead

Saying “no” is just so hard sometimes that we would rather just lie. I have been overwhelmed by how popular my recent Medium essays have been that are focused on “How to Say No” and “How to Say No — At Work.” I’m not shocked. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of us struggle with these two tiny letters. We’re struggling now more than ever, as the number of emails that is sent daily worldwide has hit an all-time high of 319.6 billion, putting us on track to hit 376.4 billion by 2025. I know, some days it feels like all 319.6 billion are in your own inbox.

In all of those emails are requests, announcements, invitations, big asks and small ones, and subtle and not-so-subtle demands from friends, family, colleagues, and your boss and clients. Of course, add to the inundated inbox an endless march of Zoom invites amidst our global shift to work-from-home (um, the dining room table), plus the calls, texts, and social and Slack messages that pile up daily, and you have a society — both ours and those abroad — at its limit. It is no wonder we are all so exhausted. I don’t know about you personally, but I certainly am.

All that said, it still isn’t any easier to say “no” to all that is asked of us. This year, as The Great Pause forced me to “reckon with my shit” (I was solo in an apartment here in New York City for over a year), I decided to stop lying about why I didn’t want to do all of the things that are asked of me. You know those lies, the small little white lies you tell to get out of saying “yes.” The ones you tell as you squirm in your seat, phone or keyboard in hand, racking your brain to figure out how to get out of the thing/event/meeting/party/Zoom-fest you have inadvertently found yourself in.

Here are ten very popular lies that so many of us tell daily:

  1. “Oh, I didn’t see that email.” Yes, you did.
  2. “I never got your message.” Really? It says “Read.”
  3. “I’m not sure of my schedule.” “I don’t think I am free.” Yes, you are. Your calendar is open in front of you. And you are completely free that night.
  4. “I am so busy these days.” You can make the time if it’s important to you.
  5. “Things have been crazy!” Ugh.
  6. “I can’t.” Yes, you can. You just don’t want to.
  7. “I didn’t get your text.” See #1.
  8. “I’m so sorry, but…” You’re not really sorry.
  9. [Clicks “Maybe” on the e-vite] “I’ll do my best!” Will you?
  10. “I’ll try to make it.” “I’ll try to be there.” “I’ll try to log on.” No, you won’t.

Why do we lie about our time and about what we want and/or are willing to do? For me, I used to lie because I am a classic people-pleaser and saying “no” is so extremely uncomfortable that I felt it would cost me a friendship, a work relationship, the possibility of romance, or the opportunity to get ahead somehow. I used to think “No” was the worst thing you could say in our culture of “Say yes to life!” I was unwilling to risk people not liking me, people thinking I was a bad person, people thinking I was not a committed and professional — or loving — person.

But in the great reckoning that has been the pandemic, I have realized that the costs of lying — to my mental health, to my self-esteem, and to my life — are even greater. These little lies add up. Each is a tiny chip away at my personal integrity. Each is a small crack in the general understanding I have of myself as an honest person. No need to be Pollyanna about it (or Roman Catholic), but I do find that when I am honest about why I don’t want to do something or why I don’t want to commit to something, I am empowered. Yes, saying “no” gives me more time and energy to say “yes” to the shit I actually want to do, but saying “no” honestly actually feels good. Each time is a small boost in my confidence and personal power.

And so, for that reason alone, with every email and message asking something of me, I give an extra beat and ask myself, “Do I really want to commit to this?” If, in fact, I don’t, I challenge myself to figure out how I can answer “no” politely and with respect and grace, and how I can do so honestly so that I walk away from the exchange a better friend, colleague, or all-around human. Here are some phrases that I now use. In the spirit and style of my other pieces, I give them to you on little blue post-it notes. See below.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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