The Niceness of No (aka You're so Canadian!)

I’m not sure when being called nice became an insult. It certainly wasn’t when I was growing up in my hometown of Montreal, Canada. Nice wasn’t even an aspiration. It was more of a bodily function, like breathing. I was 24-years-old when I moved overseas and discovered that my niceness was seen as a flaw, a too-good-to-be-true annoyance to be dealt with while we got to the bottom of what I was really thinking. It was the first time I heard, "you’re so Canadian!" said in exasperation. (Foreigners who move here suffer from the opposite — they’re seen as harsh and overly direct. They learn what they call the Sandwich Technique: say something nice, then say what you really mean, then end it with something nice.)

Maybe it’s the free healthcare and affordable education that keeps us feeling taken care of or the freezing winters that thaw out our anger, I don’t know, but it’s true — Canadians are nice. And we are not the only ones.

Nice people everywhere suffer the same pejorative humphs that I have been subjected to, because the insinuation is that if you’re nice you are weak, a pushover. Moreover, if you’re too nice it’s not actually niceness, it’s repressed anger or frustration at not being able to say what you really want to say, whereby niceness isn’t niceness at all, just a severe case of passive-aggression.

Agree to disagree.

We’re nice cuz we’re nice, end of story. But one thing nice people have a hard time with is saying no. Because most of the time we are a big yes. Because niceness expands your heart along with your capacity to do things for other people, so that when someone asks if you can do something you wonder ‘can I do it?’ rather than ‘do I want to do it?’. So you don’t get a lot of practice at saying no, which makes it uncomfortable. But also extremely unkind. To yourself.

Because every time you say Yes! to another you say No! to yourself. No to that time and energy that you would otherwise be investing in yourself. No to the part of you that would rather sit on the couch and watch Real Housewives (because that’s not nearly as important as what you are being asked to do).  No to the practice of saying no because you aren’t the type of person who can say no with grace and kindness.

Not yet, anyway.

Saying no takes practice. Like anything that you have no practice doing, it’s awkward at first. You’re clumsy, messy, sloppy. You may be abrupt, angry, even harsh. You walk away feeling like shit and probably make the other person feel crappy, too. That sucks, I know, I am sorry. But it’s not a good reason to stop. (That’s like not completing your driving lessons cuz you suck at it. But if you drive without the lessons you will kill someone! Keep practicing.)

Saying no is the nicest thing you can do for yourself. It is also a very nice thing to do for another. Think of your own resourcefulness and resilience -- it comes from all the no’s you have been given over the years. Think of how much people trust you to be able to handle a no. Put that same faith in the other. Trust that they can handle your no and come up with a better solution. Trust that your frequent no’s make your yes’s all the more alluring. Trust that your maybe’s are also a no-for-now. Trust that most of the time you don’t know if you’re a yes or a no, such that, generally speaking, your best response is always, ‘thank you and I’ll get back to you’ until you get really good at this.

At which point you can start giving Canadian no’s: “So sorry, but that won’t work for me, eh?”