Getting to No

Rule #1: ALWAYS be polite...

I was saying goodbye to a man who had met with me to discuss some things. It had been an uncomfortable meeting for me in many ways.  He stood too close, he was too familiar with me, too complimentary.  It is hard to pinpoint the discomfort, but the sense of the whole encounter left me feeling nauseated and like I needed to put on a heavy coat despite the eighty-degree temperatures outside.  Well goodbye then, I said and I offered my hand for a goodbye shake.

Really, Rabbi? A handshake? I thought we were better friends than that. How about a hug?

It seems so easy on paper to know what to do. “NO!” It’s simple.  But in real time, with real people in real life, saying “No” is not that easy.  I think many people,  specifically men, do not understand that this is true or why.  We are socialized to behave a certain way based on any number of overlapping identities; gender being one of them.  From day one, we are taught certain rules based on the meat-suit we happen to be born into. If your body is female this is some of your training that begins with your first breath.

Rule #1: ALWAYS be polite: My mother tells this incredible story of my birth.  In July of 1976 as they wheeled my mother on a gurney through The Lying Inn, now Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, she screamed out with the intensity of the pangs of childbirth.  Family legend holds that I was two weeks past my due date but was making my entry into the world so quickly that there was not even enough time for the epidural to kick in.  The nurse leaned down to my mother’s ear and said, “Now dear, you don’t want your husband to hear you making that much noise now, do you?” Even in the throes of labor, as women, we are expected to behave demurely, quietly, obediently, politely, cleanly, and nicely.

Rule #2: It’s your job to make everyone else happy. A dear friend tells the following story about her young daughter. While playing with one of her friends, the girls had a disagreement and the friend began to cry.  My friend began to say to her daughter, ‘Look what you did! You made her cry! You need to make her feel better!’ When suddenly she realized what she was telling her child was You’re responsible for that person’s feelings.  You MADE her feel bad (heaven forbid someone should feel bad!) and now, it is your job to MAKE her feel better. The truth is, we all feel what we feel.  As a society, we seem to be phobic of unhappiness, discomfort, sadness or pain-even when these emotions are healthy normal and incredibly USEFUL. We train women and girls, especially that if someone in the room feels bad it is probably because of something we did and it is definitely up to us to make it better.  Instead, we would be better served if everyone learned to respond to feelings by offering a listening ear and asking what the person in distress needs-including being left alone to just feel their feelings.

Rule #3: It’s your job to BE happy.  In reading countless #MeToo articles, one of the examples of harassment that comes up over and over again is of a woman walking down the street and someone steps in her way and says, “Smile so you’ll be pretty.” The message here is that anything other than a happy face is ugly.  All people have a wide-range of feelings and emotions.  And yet, if a woman is walking around with a flat or frowning face, this is some kind of social infraction-that she is breaking the rules.  Women must smile, be, and look happy.  Expressing an air that everything is fine at all times.  Case and point, Barbie.

Rule #4: Winning means being liked.  When I was in kindergarten, the girls played house and the boys played T-ball.  In their game, there were clear winners and clear losers. No one has to teach you that you don’t want to be a loser.  If you are, you are a target for teasing and other schoolyard harassment. In the girl game, you win by going along with the play.  Being creative is rewarded if the idea is liked by everyone else.  If your idea for the imaginary play is not accepted or if you try to play in a scene that is different than what everyone else is doing, then you have lost.  Again, no one wants to be a loser.  The consequences for losing is exclusion, being pushed to the side

Rule #5: Be powerful and successful! But not too much.  The 2000 Harvard Business School (HBS) study of H. Roizen shows us that if you break the rules you pay the price.  Students at HBS were given an identical case study about a real-life entrepreneur and described how this person became a very successful venture capitalist by using their outgoing personality and networking skills.  The case studies were identical except one was about a Heidi Roizen and the other about Howard Roizen.  Both candidates were seen as infinitely qualified for the job.  However, Heidi was seen as unlikeable. The HBS students saw Heidi as selfish and not the type of person you would want to work with.  What do we learn from this?  Those women who break the norms, or are too powerful, too successful are also unlikeable.  Remember rule #3…being likable means you win.  Being unlikeable means you lose.

So let’s go back to my doorway and the man who wanted a hug instead of a handshake. Be polite, make someone else happy, appear to like it and don’t assert too much power.  Put it all together and you get…

Rule #6: Say yes. Or at least-don’t say no. Growing up I always heard “No means no,” but the message I was left with was everything else meant yes.  When faced with a sense of uncertainty over what to do in a situation, the default was clearly to say yes.  Being agreeable was praised. Being the one to compromise to make everyone else happy was seen as a virtue even if it came at a cost to yourself.  Apply this to school projects, workgroups and to unwanted touching or sexual advances. In 2015, a video on YouTube appeared called Tea and Consent equating the saying of “Yes” or “No” to sex or anything relating to sex to the drinking of a cup of tea.  If someone does not explicitly say yes to having a cup of hot tea, you don’t force the hot tea. So unclear is this issue of consent that this video was produced by the Thames Valley Police Department.

In the end, I gave a half-hearted awkward hug because this is what I have been trained to do.  And I immediately knew that it was wrong for me.  All my training may be what was, but, I believe, we now live in a different era where we no longer need to say yes when we either aren’t sure or outright want to say no.

A few weeks later, I ran into someone I knew as I was running errands around town.  I put out my hand to shake it and he opened his arms for a hug.  “No thank you,” I said.  “I’m a hand-shake, not a hugger.” Turns out, as we rewrite the rules, there is room for great change, room to be polite, likeable, powerful, and happy, and room to say no.

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