(Content note: I’m mostly not talking about sexual consent and the violation of it — but I do mention it. I also talk at greater length about alcohol abuse, food issues, social anxiety, and refusal of non-sexual consent.)
“Have another brownie. Life is short!”
“The game really isn’t that hard. I’m sure you’ll love it! I’ll pull you up a chair. Here’s how you play…”
“Come on — dance with us! Everyone’s dancing! No, really — you’ll have fun!”
There’s an idea that’s very prevalent in our culture. (Well, my culture, anyway.) It’s the idea that not taking “No” for an answer, that pressing people to do things they’ve said “No” to, is jolly good fun.
I’m not talking here about sexual consent, and pressing people to do sexual things they’ve said “No” to. I do think that can be part of this pattern: there’s a very similar idea when it comes to sex, that pressing people sexually is part of a fun cat-and-mouse game of coyness and seduction. (It can be in consensual, negotiated situations — but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) And I think that the general, non-sexual trope of pressuring people in the name of jolly fun does affect our shitty culture of sexual consent. But it isn’t what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about general, non-sexual or not-particularly-sexual social situations. I’m talking about the idea that the key to a lively event is pressing people into having fun. I’m talking about the idea that when you invite someone to do something you think they’d enjoy, and they say “No,” the cheerful, jovial, sociable response is to brush off their objections, and persuade them to do it anyway.
And it’s an idea that needs to die in a fire.
We need to understand five things here.
One: Adults can make their own decisions about what they do and don’t enjoy.
Two: Adults often have very good reasons for the decisions they make.
Three: Adults often have very private reasons for the decisions they make.
Four: Resisting social pressure can be extremely difficult, and it’s almost always unpleasant.
Five: Adults’ reasons for doing or not doing things are none of your damn business.
I can think of a zillion other examples, just off the top of my head. Someone may be battling alcohol dependency, and may be trying to limit their intake or avoid it altogether. Someone may have serious issues with food — health issues, eating disorders, dietary restrictions — which mean they have to be careful about what they eat and when. Someone may have physical limitations that make it impossible to dance, or play charades, or sit in a chair playing a board game for two hours. Someone may have social anxieties that make certain social activities difficult. (Other examples are welcomed in the comments.) If anything like this is true, being pressured to do the exact thing you really can’t do is the exact opposite of jolly fun.
But there are plenty of other, less serious reasons for saying “No” to an invitation. “I’m battling alcohol dependency” is certainly a good reason for not drinking, as is “I’m driving,” “I can’t drink with the medication I’m on,” “There’s alcoholism in my family so I’m really careful about how much I drink.” But other perfectly good reasons include “I’m having great conversations with good friends and fascinating new people, and I’d rather do that with a clear head.” “I just found out that a high-powered literary agent is here, and I want to meet them with a clear head.” “You’re offering me a martini, and I hate gin.” “I’m already tipsy, and that’s fun, but I really don’t enjoy getting hammered.” “This is a work event for me, and I don’t drink at work.” “I’m counting calories, and I can’t fit both dessert and a cocktail into my calorie budget, and I am bloody well not missing Sheila’s homemade fudge.” “I’m party-hopping, and the next party will have seventeen-year-old Scotch, and I’d really rather get schnozzled on that.” “I just don’t feel like it.”
And that’s the point. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are. We shouldn’t have to give a reason for saying “No.” Even if our reasons for saying “No” are less than dire, it’s still no fun to be pressured into doing things we’d really rather not do. Again, I refer you to #4 above: Resisting social pressure can be extremely difficult, and it’s almost always unpleasant. It puts people in the position of either letting their boundaries be trampled, or repeating their “No” a dozen times and being treated like a party-pooping sourpuss. If people’s reasons for declining are private, it puts them in the position of either lying, disclosing things they didn’t want to disclose, or saying a simple “No” a dozen times in the face of relentless coaxing and having their refusal treated like a tantalizing mystery. It can be deeply upsetting or even triggering, if the thing they’re being pressed to do, or the simple fact of being pressured, is traumatic for them. And in the worst case scenario, it can push people over the edge into doing something that’s actually really freaking dangerous for them.
Not taking “No” for an answer probably is more socially jolly, in the sense that it can get people drinking more, eating more, dancing more, playing more games, singing more bad ’80s pop songs, smoking more weed, setting off more firecrackers, breaking into more abandoned amusement parks. But it’s a whole lot less jolly, in the sense that it gets people spending an entire social event with their guard up. It’s a whole lot less jolly, in the sense that it gets people having other people’s idea of fun instead of their own. It’s a whole lot less jolly, in the sense that it gets people doing things that, for whatever reason, serious or frivolous or entirely inexplicable, they’ve decided they don’t want to do. It’s a whole lot less jolly, in the sense that it creates a social atmosphere where consent is trivialized.
Now, are there people who say “No” to these invitations when they really want to say “Yes,” because they feel shy or reticent? Sure. That’s a thing. And I think this is often why people in festive social situations don’t take “No” for an answer. I don’t think all of them, or even most of them, are trying to be assholes (although some of them certainly are). I think many of them are sincerely trying to coax people out of their shyness, and into things they’d enjoy.
But it’s entirely possible to convey the genuinely inviting, genuinely jolly part of this message — the “I think this is a fun activity, I think you might enjoy it” part of the message — while still accepting “No” for an answer.
We can say things like, “If you change your mind, let me know.” “Is there something else I can get you?” “If you’d like to dance later, come find me, I’ll be around all evening.” “I know the game seems complicated, but most people pick it up easily — but if you don’t want to play, that’s totally fine.”
If I know that people will respect my limits, I’m more likely to overcome whatever shyness or reticence I might have had. I’m more likely to think that doing things with them will be fun. I’m more likely to relax, to let down my guard, to take a chance on something new. And I’m a whole lot more likely to join in the reindeer games.