Why I sometimes say ‘no.’ And why I don’t need to explain it.

The word ‘no’ requires a disclaimer. If you tell someone ‘no’ in this culture, you usually have to explain why, to give a reason why the requester can’t get what s/he asked for. For women, this is especially true- not only do we frequently have to give a reasonable explanation for our refusal, we have to do it in a gentle, diplomatic way that soothes any hurt feelings or fragile egos.

I followed this social expectation until I started teaching. One of the defense mechanisms I developed as a teacher of pre-adolescents (and I developed many) was to simply say no and move on. When my students were first getting to know me, they would always ask why….or they’d ask the same question again, sometimes in a different way, sometimes not. I think they initially had a very low estimation of my mental prowess.

Here’s how it typically went:

Kid: “Ms. Howell, can I ______________?”

Me: “No. Take a seat.”

Kid: “Why?/Why not?/ But you let ______ do it!/ Can I __________?”

Me: “Uh huh….you asked me a question. I answered the question. Moving on….”

I came to love that refrain. You asked me a question, and I answered it. Done and done (wipes hands metaphorically clean of the situation). Once I started doing that in teaching, I started to circle around a situation that comes up in the dance community quite often that I believe started as a social courtesy and has outlived it’s usefulness.

A bit of a wind up is in order.

Social mores within a specific community evolve for a reason. Within dancing, you put yourself out there a lot and so there are several traditions that evolved in order to soften blows to the ego that come from asking someone to dance and being turned down. The (usually unspoken) rule of dancing within the Lindy Hop community currently stands as this- If someone asks you to dance and you turn them down, you sit out the rest of that dance and turn down anyone else who asks- whether you want to dance with them or not. Usually the one turning down the offer to dance will give a disclaimer of some kind-

“I’m sitting this one out.”

“Need some water.”

“About to leave.”

So the person asking is assured that s/he would have said yes to the offer, except for some extenuating circumstance. It is supposed to follow unspoken that if asked again in the future, the person would say yes. Ego assuaged. “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Except sometimes, it is you.

Sometimes I (and others) say no to a dance because I don’t want to dance with you. Not because I’m snotty, although I’m pretty sure I’ll be accused of it soon. Not because I think I’m better than you. Not because I need water or have to say hello to a friend. But because of one simple fact- you hurt me. You dance badly. Not just inexperienced, but badly. You jerk on my arm. You pull my arm down when I’m in the middle of a spin. You whip me into painful moves that you think look cool to people watching us. You are not engaged in a dance with me- you’re engaged in a dance with yourself, and are using me as a prop. You are Oblivious Dancer.

I say no to Oblivious Dancers. They dance at my expense, and don’t bother to learn how to make me comfortable…or, at least, how to not make me uncomfortable. They don’t consider me as a partner in the dance, and they don’t create a dialogue with me. There’s no back and forth communication, either because they don’t know how to enter into said communication or they don’t care to enter into it.

Here is where I tie these two themes together.

I dance to communicate. I dance to share an experience. I don’t dance to be a prop in someone else’s experience. So now I say no to people that I’ve seen act as that certain kind of oblivious partner. I just don’t dance with them. And if someone else that I like to dance with asks me to dance three seconds later, I say yes. I’m no longer sitting out whole dances just because I had to turn down someone at the beginning who is one of these Oblivious Dancers. A dancer asks to have an experience with me. I can say yes or no. They ask a question, and I answer the question. I choose not to sit out the rest of the dance just to preserve a social expectation. I have taken back my right to say no without explanation.

In offering an explanation or sitting out the rest of the dance, I think we do a disservice to the Oblivious Dancer. They don’t learn. They don’t learn the reason that they were refused and they don’t get the message that there is something critical that they need to work on. They just go on being Oblivious. This helps no one and is cowardly in a way. I think we should slowly stop this custom of sitting out the rest of a dance just because we’ve already said no. I have a right to answer the question without it affecting the rest of the song.

And a brief message to the Oblivious Dancer: If you hurt me, your forfeit the privilege to dance with me again until you improve to the point where you are conscious of me as a partner in the dance (and not a prop). Done and done.

Moving on…

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9 thoughts on “Why I sometimes say ‘no.’ And why I don’t need to explain it.

  1. I need five hundred likes for this post.

    Will be stealing your “you asked a question and I answered it” response – explaining my “no”s is a habit I’ve been trying to break. I think I’ll give it up for Lent.

  2. I am torn — I really hate hurting feelings…but I do think there comes a point where I cannot sacrifice my health / happiness / shoulder just because an Oblivious Lead has asked me to dance (again).

    Two Mondays ago, Mr. Oblivious Lead hurt my shoulder on the floor. Even though it was the end of the song, I immediately stopped dancing (in an abrupt kind of way) and explained that it hurt, but still thanked him for the dance. However, my shoulder kept hurting for the rest of the night, and I wish I could have avoided that.

    To his credit, he emailed me the next day to make sure my shoulder was all right and apologize again for hurting it. I didn’t see him this past Monday, but I doubt he would have asked to dance, giving me the space I need to recover. And I honestly think he is OBLIVIOUS — not because he chooses to be, but because no one has pointed out the pain.

    In a way we coddle him by saying no every other time and dancing with him on the super slow songs where we can control the pain. But in a way we do him a disservice, because we can’t help teach him — because I am almost positive he will never do that move again (or at least not until he works on it).

    In a way, though, we also coddle him by saying no every single time — because he learns to see us as snobs, take advantage of the intermediate polite dancers who will say yes sometimes but never say anything about what hurts and what doesn’t, and abuse the intermediate / new dancers who do not know better (or have the same bad habits).

    I do like the concept of just being able to say “no” sometimes. No reason. No, “I don’t like this song” or “I need a short break.” Just because. I just need to think about how it applies to my own life. And be mindful of always letting Mr. Oblivious Lead know when he hurt me, because otherwise I am doing him, myself, and the community a disservice.

    • Agreed. In a way, I’m talking about a service to the dancers of the community who need to hear that they are not doing the most comfortable of moves. Some people, myself included, are not the most overly-intuitive beings. Some people really just need to be told a piece of constructive criticism straight and clear, and it can be done with kindness and good intentions.

      And, in another way, I’m talking about not doing a disservice to yourself simply because you’re expected to play down saying ‘no.’ There are ways to do it without coming off as a bitch, and I think too few people really consider trying to work within that grey area. Most of us would rather veer towards the side where they don’t offend anyone. The older I get, the more bullshit I handle, the less I feel inclined to do that.

      • If I could “like” that reply, I would. I think you’re right that we don’t utilize that “grey” area where you can give a definitive “no” without being a bitch.

        And I think you’re most especially right about not doing a disservice to yourself. It is wrong to feel obligated to dance — even every other week — with any dancer who hurts you.

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  4. Pingback: thoughts on the word “no,” particularly in reference to Mr. Oblivious Lead « move(me)nt

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  6. While agree that you certainly have the right to say no to any person under any circumstances without providing any rationale whatsoever, from the perspective of the person who asked, it does pose a practical conundrum.

    Specifically, if I do not know why you said no, I do not know under what circumstances you may say yes. Hence as a matter of policy, if someone turns me down without providing some explanation, I assume the worst and I never ask that person to dance ever again.

    It would be nice if people provided honest reasoning for why they turn someone down, like, “I won’t dance with you until you learn to control the amount of force you use”, or “I won’t dance with you until you take a few more advanced classes”, or “I don’t want to dance with you ever” if that really is the reason.

    That would at least allow one to determine under what circumstances it is permissible to ask the you to dance again, assuming there are any. Unfortunately, this information is typically not provided, and one is left to wonder if “I’m getting a drink of water” literally means you are getting a drink of water, or whether there is some other reason that could potentially be rectified, were one made aware of it.

    • I agree with this. There IS a responsibility to tell a lead that hurts you that they have hurt you…the fine line is when someone is just very uncomfortable for you to dance with…but others may find them enjoyable. If the don’t outright hurt you, but you don’t enjoy dancing with them, you should still say no without guilt or sitting out. That’s a main point I was trying to make. I don’t want to be a tool for someone else’s dance.

      Having said all that, for me personally, if I am friends with someone and they ask me to dance, I only say no if there is some reason I don’t feel like dancing THAT SONG. Maybe my knee hurts, or I hate the song, or it’s just too fast/slow for my liking, or I did indeed see someone I’d like to go talk to….

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