Learning To Say No

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

di85A5o9T Today I said no to writing a script based on a promising story that interested me very much. My reasons were two-fold. First, my vision for the project–a thriller set in a specific timeframe–clashed with that of the man who proposed the project, who seemed increasingly to want a biopic based on his life. Second, it became clear that although he’s not a writer he expected to collaborate on the script, despite the fact that (as I told him at the outset) I write alone. Turning down the offer was the right thing to do, as anyone could see. But the fact that I should have said no sooner wasn’t obvious to me, and that’s what this post is about.

Thirty years into my career, it still seems more natural to say yes than no, a fact I attribute to my gender and upbringing. Women are socialized to be agreeable, to say not only yes but thank you for every morsel they’re offered in life and for years I did, to my detriment. Before striking out on my own professionally, I didn’t get promotions or raises. This was not because I was undeserving but because I had no idea of how to ask for them, or even that I should. Saying yes was the default setting in my personal life as well, which explains why I stayed in relationships that weren’t working–for me, that is. As recently as few years ago, I was talked into serving on the Hollywood Homeowners’ Association, a brief disaster that could have been avoided if I’d simply followed my instincts and said no.

It wasn’t until my son was growing up that I realized how different males are in this regard. When answering the question “Do you want…?,” he would automatically say no, and nearly every time. Though he often reversed himself immediately, his default setting was refusal. At the time I thought it was funny but in retrospect it seems quite serious: saying no gives you power, even if you happen to have very little of it.

These days I say no much more than yes. In fact, I just did it again, on a much smaller business matter. The asker seemed unperplexed by my refusal, which probably means it was no big deal for him. But it was for me.

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