Q: I’m a good-looking man and get my share of attention, but I don’t understand what makes it so hard for so many guys to say “No thanks” directly. I’m not made of glass, and I won’t shatter if somebody rejects me when I ask him out. But I don’t know how many times people have said to me “Sure, I’d love to get together with you, but I’m really busy for the next two weeks. I’ll call you when my schedule clears out.” Then he never calls, and I’m supposed to get the point without him ever having to say it. If he’s trying to avoid hurting my feelings that’s just stupid, because it’s a lot worse to be looking forward to a call and then gradually realize that he was just blowing me off. Online hookups are the worst for this. So many guys will promise to show up, and, even if they’ve already gotten together with you before and had a great time, instead of cancelling they’ll just not show up. It’s especially aggravating when later I see the guy on the street and he looks the other way and pretends he doesn’t see me. I don’t like rejection, but I can handle it. Why are people so afraid of doing it?
A: It’s tempting to explain this kind of behavior as just thoughtless indifference or laziness. But those explanations don’t account for the many people who are willing to do an incredible amount of work and go to any lengths – pretend they don’t see you, cross the street to avoid you, change their phone numbers, quit their jobs, leave town, have plastic surgery, go into a witness protection program – all to avoid having to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” And what is peculiar is that many of these same people take it in stride when the shoe is on the other foot and they have to take “No” for an answer. It may sting for a while, but they don’t have a meltdown. They usually quickly forget about it and move on. Yet despite their own experience, the thought of directly telling someone no fills them with anxiety and dread.
I began to get a different perspective on this issue when I visited other cultures. While traveling in Asia and India, for instance, I learned that in many places saying “No” or even “No thanks” to any offer was considered unforgivably rude. When street vendors tried to get my attention, I wasn’t supposed to turn them down outright. Instead, I was supposed to say something like “Maybe on the way back,” or “I’ll be back tomorrow.” When I did that, they understood the meaning, but took no offense. We Americans like to pride ourselves on having left all these quaint customs of traditional cultures behind, and like to believe that we’re direct and rational about everything, but apparently many of us, too, have deeply ingrained taboos against saying “no” directly. And it’s not going to change anytime soon. People in my business have made fortunes in the media for decades telling us all to “be direct”, to “communicate” our feelings “honestly and openly” blah, blah, blah – but I see no evidence that they’ve had any effect on how most of us actually talk to one another.
So what do you do about it? There’s no point in going on a campaign to make anybody change, because you won’t succeed, but it might help you to take it more in stride if you work at not taking it personally. Think about it this way: whatever the reasons a guy doesn’t turn you down directly – whether it’s cultural influence, childhood experiences, or just because nobody ever taught him manners – the influences that caused his behavior happened to him long before you crossed his path. In this sense, it really isn’t about you. And whether he’s doing it directly or indirectly he’s actually not rejecting you, he’s turning you down. “Rejection” is your interpretation of what it means. Second, the conditioning that determined what floats his boat also happened long before he met you. If, because of his past influences, he’s only attracted to guys who are shorter than he is, and you’re taller, in what meaningful sense is that about you? Nobody likes being turned down – but it only becomes a problem when we take it personally, that is, when we see it as some direct commentary on our value and worth as human beings
So much of our aggravation and pain eases up when we remember how rarely we’re really the center of other people’s attention. I’m not saying you have to like being blown off, because you’re never going to like it; or that you have put up with bad behavior from others. What I am saying is that not letting it drive you nuts is an inside job. It’s all about maturity. The more we understand that we aren’t the center of the universe, and that most of what other people isn’t about us, the easier it becomes just to take it in stride, and to respond to disappointment with a little more lightness and equanimity.