Edited by Malavika Suresh
Let’s say you’ve had a tough week overflowing with multiple deadlines for assignments and other initiatives, meetings that went on for hours, and classes with multiple readings. During the week, a friend texts you saying that there’s an emergency and asks if you could give them some feedback on a very important research paper that they have to submit soon. What do you say?
Similarly, let’s say you have been unable to work all week because of health concerns. You have been unproductive and have spent every minute of every day in bed, trying to get into a zone where you can get through your to-do lists. It has not worked. A cousin texts you then, asking if you can go to a small family get-together on call. It will involve dealing with some people you’d rather avoid this week. What do you say?
The rational answer to these questions is an easy no. However, if you’re like me, the difficult part is in saying it. Our friends, family, and colleagues occupy important positions in our lives. We have been taught that saying no to anyone, including strangers, is a sign of arrogance and selfishness. It is often considered downright impolite and rude. So, what is at stake when you prioritise someone else’s comfort over your limits?
The first answer is boundaries. All healthy relationships have them. It is important in any relationship to have the option and space to take a step back and say no, especially during a difficult time for either person. Boundaries indicate that we respect each other and each other’s preferences. They allow us to be intimate, but on our terms. Boundaries demonstrate that we are allowed to put ourselves first, while still occupying the same role in the relationship. Having boundaries does not mean that one stops putting effort into a relationship, it means that all efforts being put in are enthusiastic, consensual, and comfortable. Isn’t it a wonderful thought that when your friends say yes to plans, it is not because they aren’t allowed to say no?
The second answer is the protection of the mental health and well-being of marginalized communities. There is a power dynamic at work that puts a simple “no” out of bounds when dealing with communities higher up in power structures. This dynamic dictates that sections with more power, resources, and opportunities are entitled to the time, efforts, and labour of those below them. This might be because of misconstrued notions of individual and social value, or just the inability to understand that people who are not like us, have value in being who they are. During these times, it becomes important for individuals from marginalized backgrounds to be able to affirmatively put forth a ‘no’, however small. It becomes a tool of self-preservation and self-respect.
A ‘no’ does not need to be said only in answer to questions. This two-letter word can be employed against comments made about oneself (especially the unwarranted ones about physical features or intrusive remarks that affect your self-esteem), opportunities that look like opportunities but are only meant to extract labour, like long interviews that demand immense emotional and mental effort without compensation. It can be used against the smallest of orders that seem like they would take no work to fulfill, for instance someone asking you to explain a term or phenomenon that they could easily google, especially vocabulary that is used by marginalized sections to describe their personal and political experiences. ‘No’ is a tool that has been kept hidden from us, when its usage should be encouraged and emphasised on as much as its counterpart.
As with any resource of choice, the usage depends on the user and their discretion. This article intended to make it clear that such an asset is and has been at our disposal, regardless of what we have been taught. We have the right to say it, wherever and however we see fit. Using it, even using it frequently when needed, is not to be perceived as a negative judgement on one’s character or capabilities. There is strength in recognising that we are human and have potential, but also in identifying our limits.