For over a week, one of my friends agonized about asking a cute guy in “Human Emotion” out on a date. She had noticed him at the beginning of the semester, but never spoke to him. Then he got a new haircut, which framed his ice-blue eyes instead of masking them, and she couldn’t resist introducing herself. Yet when she got to the point in the conversation where she could have asked him to coffee or drinks or dining-hall dinner, she choked up. “I tried to be flirtatious yet casual — and I failed,” she told me. “I was so awkward. I just kept thinking, ‘What if he says no?’” Usually a paragon of calmness and practicality, she had been reduced to compulsively weighing the possibility of rejection against the desire for a date. And at least for now, the fear of “no” is winning.
Getting turned down for a date might be even worse than not getting into a particular college, internship program or seminar. Instead of judging your SAT scores or cover letters, your prospects are judging you. We identify with the rejected — when we hear “he’s just not that into you,” we wince in sympathy.
But it’s also difficult to be “just not that into you.” Although I cringe at the idea of announcing to my friends, “Oh, it’s so hard for me to say no to people who like me,” this complicated negotiation between tact and truth is one of the most challenging social exchanges we encounter. And if there’s a perfect way to say no, I’ve never been able to find it.
Once someone with whom I had a sushi date sent me an angry e-mail after I begged off a second one. I tried to be subtle in my discouragement and ended up citing my busy schedule and exhaustion as excuses. I had hoped that he would get the hint without feeling rejection. He responded quickly, in an e-mail with “Honesty” in the subject line: “We live in the middle of thousands of people who are brilliant at coming up with great reasons for not being able to do something, and if I want another set of excuses for why something didn’t work out I certainly don’t have to put the time and energy into getting those excuses from you. (This is where you pause, and take a deep breath. It’s important for the next section. Believe me.)” The rest of the e-mail described how we could have had “something real, something worthwhile, something (if you’ll pardon the romanticism) beautiful”; I needed lots of deep breaths.
I am hesitant to offer rules for social conduct in the Yale bubble, where most of the time we are making it up as we go along. But I am certain that generosity is a virtue in relationships. When we offer people real consideration as individuals with undeniable and discoverable value, rather than dismissing them outright for having annoying friends or the wrong political affiliation or because we’ve “heard” about them, we open up a world of possibilities for new friends and lovers. Yet, giving someone a chance doesn’t necessarily lead to happily ever after. Sometimes after one conversation or one night together, we recognize that whatever was initially compelling now leaves us unmoved. The excitement is gone.
If that happens, then my erstwhile lover is right: There’s no time for excuses. This isn’t just because almost everyone is busy preparing to lead a Reach Out trip or operating an NGO in the developing world. It’s because the same generosity that we prize at the beginning of a relationship should extend to its ending — which does not mean avoiding text messages or repeatedly postponing, telling someone you’re interested in someone else. Even though we all know the punched-in-the-throat feeling of rejection and dislike awkwardness, we owe the people who like us the respect that comes with telling the truth. Maybe not the whole truth (if the reason really is “his best friend” or “her laugh”), but a softer version of it. In other words: Be kind. Be honest. Say no when it’s no.
I replied to my “honest” suitor’s diatribe with as much kindness and sincerity as I could. He replied a few days later with more grace and less resentment than I expected. We now greet each other when we pass and promise to catch up sometime. It wasn’t the perfect no, but it gave another girl the chance to say, “Yes.”
Elisa Gonzalez is a junior in Pierson College.