06 March 2013

On Saying No

Yesterday on twitter, I came across this article, which purports to be about the pros and cons of "being agreeable and saying yes." Except there's just one little paragraph about the perils (being overextended), and the rest of it is about why you should always say yes, even if you're already overextended.

If you will pardon my French, bullshit.

Saying no is a valid response. Looking at how many things you've already agreed to do and how many other things are going on in your life (like maintaining relationships, raising a child, working a 9-5 job to keep food on the table, illnesses, etc) and knowing that you just can't do everything is an important skill. You have to protect yourself.

I also wonder how much of the scutwork of housekeeping and childraising falls to Salesses' wife while he overextends himself, and who has, he believes, his best interests in mind when she tells him to say no, but does he consider her feelings? Does he consider that maybe she's overextended because of his foolish insistence on saying yes? Not in this particular text.

He generalizes his personal experiences to everyone. Because a few times he got some good opportunities by always saying yes, everyone should always say yes. First off, not everyone gets invitations to write things for people. Most of us just have to write our stuff and send it off to magazines or agents or editors and hope they like it enough to buy it. Once you've established yourself somewhat, that's when the invitations to write for anthologies come in.

Second off, not everyone has the privilege he does. Not everyone has a wife who is willing to pick up the slack when he can't do his share of the housework because he's too busy. (I assume; he doesn't go into detail, and I refuse to give the Good MRA Project any pageviews to read his other writing.) Women still perform the majority of household chores, even if they work outside the home and the male partner does "some" housework. (Here are some numbers.)

In our society, women are taught to always be agreeable, always say yes, and if we have to say no, to do it with a smile and as gently as possible. Women who say no are bitches, disagreeable, cold. Articles like Salesses' perpetuate this particular thread of misogyny. (Before you react, no, he's not addressing women specifically, but we do make up half the population.)

I had a job once where I could literally not say no to anything, because my (female) bosses would guilt trip me until I agreed, or tell me what a horrible, disagreeable person I was because I'd already made plans with someone else for Friday night and it's Thursday, and you can't just drop new work in someone's lap like that. Or because I had strep throat and was too sick to go to work, let alone drive two hours each way for a monthly conference, which made me disagreeable and not a team player. It was a seriously toxic situation, which was fortunately only a one-year contract position.

Saying no is valid. Saying no when you know you're too busy, too sick, or just don't have enough interest in it is valid. It is self-protection.

I don't talk much about my health in this forum, but I'm chronically ill. I have hypothyroidism and two kinds of migraines (typical and variant). If I don't get enough sleep over a period of time, I get a migraine and am not functional until it goes away. If I'm lucky, it's a typical migraine and a triptan makes it go away. If I'm unlucky, it's the abdominal variant, which I just have to ride out. Either way, I spend the rest of the day in post-migraine fog. Through experience, I've learned that I can be two hours low for three days before I get the early warning signs that I need to get to bed early. (Which is why I missed the post-Hugo fun at WorldCon last year. I'd hit that wall. Now I know that I should plan sleep accordingly, because post-Hugo fun looked awesome.) [And my migraines are also linked to minor perturbations in thyroid hormone balance. Fun!]

If I took Salesses' advice and always said yes, I wouldn't be getting enough sleep to function*, and I'd spend half my time sick. Which is counterproductive, don't you think? If I were Salesses, I would generalize my experience based on my health and say that people should always say no.

But I'm not him, so I'll say that every person gets to decide for him- or herself which new projects or tasks they want to say yes to and which they want to say no to. They get to base that on whatever criteria they feel are most important. Every writer gets to decide whether the invitation to write a story for an anthology is worth it, whether the call for submissions that just opened up and they have a great story that isn't more than a line on a card at the moment is worth dropping other things, potentially at the risk of missing a deadline. They know what's best for their careers and their personal lives.

No one else gets to decide for you. You can be disagreeable. You can do the things you need to do to maintain. Like they say, put your own air mask on before helping others. Tell the people who think you always have to say yes to take a hike.


*well, no one's beating down my door with anthology invitations and column proposals, but if they were and I were as overextended as Salesses.

7 comments:

Devon Scott said...

As a freelancer and single father of two children I agree with you. There's a difference between sowing seed and over harvesting. Not only is the cultural commitment to work skewed in such a way that vilifies the "under-ambitious," ie those that won't work overtime for whatever reason, but we are also not allowed to show weakness. That being the common public zeitgeist you find doing poorer work and living poorer lives.

Also, to attack the entire mentality of "you never know!" the damage to one's professional image for committing to tasks only to have to cancel them, defer them, or turn in poor product follows you, because eventually you find those opportunities diminish once you're proven unreliable.

accidentalbeard said...

One habit I have had for years but only consciously noticed myself doing recently is that if someone asks me to do something, my default response is to say yes before I even have a moment to think about the request. And that's a pretty terrible habit to have, and a hard one to break.

It has taken me a long time to realize that I can say no to people. I had a very close friend who wasn't great with boundaries from late elementary to mid high school, and I think getting in the habit of doing my best to please her and go along with what she wanted (because she didn't usually listen if I didn't want the same thing) did a lot of damage to my ability to say no in other contexts.

It absolutely is, as you say, self-protection to say no to things when you can't (or don't want to) do them. For health or whatever reason. And actually, teaching people to be endlessly accommodating in their school or professional lives doesn't make it easier to also teach them the power of autonomy over their own bodies and decisions in their personal and sexual lives.

CD Covington said...

I read an interesting profile of Ta-nehisi Coates today in which he says that he turned down a twice-a-week op-ed gig at the NY Times because he didn't want his writing to suffer. He didn't think that with all his other stuff (family, Atlantic column, books?) he'd be able to maintain the quality writing his readers have come to expect. Which points to Devon's second paragraph.

I think there's a sort of stigma against doing things to protect yourself, from saying no to setting boundaries. I know I've felt guilty for being a demanding harpy because I asked for something I needed to prevent my becoming sick(er). (Then again, some people's reactions to it don't help, either. Annoyed eyerolls and "she's being a bitch again" because I stated that I'd prefer going to a restaurant with food I can eat.)

It's pretty gross how people react when other people (especially women) do things to protect themselves/their health.

Justine Graykin said...

Bravo to you! I have written blogs on some of the points you make, especially pointing out how nice it is to have the leisure to blow off your domestic responsibilities because you have a spouse (or can afford to hire servants, or don't give a damn and let your other responsibilities go to hell,) to pick up the slack. Knowing how and when to say "no" is a critical survival skill, not to mention a mature acknowledgement that other values (such as your children, your friends, your community, or your spouse) are also important to you. Unfortunately, and forgive me for possibly judging unfairly, it often seems that the selfish dickhead who is willing to sacrifice everybody else in his/her life for the sake of success, is too often the one who succeeds.

John Wiswell said...

Funny we met at WorldCon and both crashed the night of the Hugos. My persistent problem is a neuromuscular syndrome - I was almost incapable of moving by the time the ceremony ended. Was also quite sore to miss the fun. As such, I'm additionally grateful for you sticking up for knowing one's limitations.

It's also funny to read your argument, which I agree with, after the big Atlantic debacle this week. Sometimes saying 'No' can even bolster the other people who practice your craft.

CD Covington said...

So, I completely missed the whole Atlantic thing. But payment in "exposure" is absolutely the worst, and unless it's something you really want to do or feel strongly about, saying no is absolutely the right thing to do.

There's a quip that I don't know the attribution to that goes something like "artists die of exposure." Exposure won't put food on your table. Exposure won't pay your bills.

It's taken me a while to be confident enough to stick up for myself and not feel guilty two minutes later. It's tricky having a chronic illness, too, because it's none of your boss' business, and in many cases it's better not to disclose. But if they start breathing down your back about "why aren't you doing more?" you're kind of stuck.

So I'm glad my stubbornness is helpful for other people.

CD Covington said...

(Also, I am v sad that I missed the post-Hugo party stuff because my husband got a picture with Neil Gaiman and his Hugo. And I was sleeping. :P )