“No” Comes First

This past week I was in Chicago, speaking at a conference. I also got to see the Museum of Contemporary Art, at the edge of Northwestern University. There is an installation piece in the courtyard–a car and camper, seemingly popping out of the plaza from Europe (as witnessed by the car and trailer’s license plates). In the short time I watched it, small children and adults alike walked around it, laughed, asked where it came from. Engaging art, making sense of the museum’s logo: Fear No Art.

Chicago Contemporary Art Museum carInside, I overheard a bit of conversation that fascinated me. A younger woman was explaining to her older companion that a friend of hers thought it would be better if our ears were porcelain– that we would treat them more carefully.

“No,” the older woman said, “it would make ears fragile.” In fact, she was agreeing with the younger woman, but she started with “no.” I found that interesting, and began to listen in on other conversations.

I heard it quite often. “No,” we say, and then refine the statement. “No,” we say, and then add details. “No,” we say, and then add an example. In every case, the person could have said, “Yes,” but chose to say “No” instead.

Why would we do that? What makes us so negative? After listening for the word all weekend at cafes, the museum, stores, in a line at the airport, and the Metro, it seems to be a way to transfer the meaning of the conversation from the other person back to the one who wants to speak. “No” is a good conversation stopper.

It also seems to signal a way to introduce another person’s experience. But I wonder what it does to the ability to listen. How much do we care if the first thing we hear is “No”? How much do we want to listen in the face of this negativity? How much do we want to agree with another’s point of view if the first thing we hear is “No.”?

Listen for “No” for a few days. Listen in your own conversation, and in the replies of others. See if “Yes” wouldn’t reach a bigger audience.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach, writing and journaling trainer, and artist. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2007, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. Image: CAM of Chicago.

10 thoughts on ““No” Comes First

  1. Interesting, using no when yes is meant, or could be meant. I’ll have to listen for it, although, here in Switzerland, English conversation is rare and then is not by native English speakers.

    However, . . . The Swiss German dialect has a word, ‘mol’, usually pronounced ‘mo’ which is a filler word often used to start a conversation. Used alone, it means ‘no’ or disagreement, but it can also mean ‘yes’ in the proper context.

    After your conversation partner has made a statement, you can begin your reply with ‘mol’ and the rest of your statement then shows whether you agree or disagree. Kind of like the use of ‘no’ above

  2. All this “no-ness” relates (I believe) to early training. Listen to parents. They are practically machine guns of “no.” Kids listen (or at least hear)and early on learn the power packed into this tiny word. Maybe we could try the romance langues approach, which puts no at the end of a sentence, thereby diminishing its negative punch,no?

  3. you are quite right Quinn about this common usage of “no” when what we really mean is “yes”. A friend of mine pointed this out to me earlier this year and now I try (not always successfully) not to use the word no when I should be saying yes

  4. Quinn, there is a trend in the antipodes of responding to a person with “Yeah –” then “no” to something positive. Someone even wrote an article about the phenomenon in the paper.

    Liked the art display shown in the photo. There is a half submerged corner of a building in the pavement in marble near our museum in the city, makes you wonder, stop and think. I like this kind of thing.

  5. We all think we are beacons of clarity because we are sure what we are thinking. People who listen to us bring in their own ideas and that confuses matters. When I teach writing, I ask participants to exchange computer screens once they have the topic paragraph down. The reader reads it ONCE and then writes what the article is about. It’s amazing how far off the mark the guess can be, because the reader hasn’t been hatching it for hours.

  6. No idea.

    (just kidding 🙂 )

    Yes, happens to me all the time as well. Things I write that I think are important I try to either have someone else read, or if there’s time I put it aside for a few days and reread it myself. While there’s some continuity between Pete on Monday and Pete on Friday, in many ways they’re different people. Different enough to see something different in the words, many times. Or maybe I don’t change at all but everything else does, which might be equally likely but unpleasantly solipsistic.

  7. That’s interesting, Pete, about how what you say comes out completely different from what you write. I’ll have to think about that one. Here’s a related thought: sometimes I write something and I think I have been perfectly clear about my meaning and someone will read it and come up with a totally different interpretation of what I thought I had written. Do you get my meaning? 🙂

  8. Maybe people use “never” to try to communicate what it was like for them at the time.

    To me it seems related to something I’ve always wondered: what I say it comes out completely different from what I write. Same language, but might as well be a different person.

    I wouldn’t (or hope I wouldn’t) write “never until”, but I’m pretty sure I say it sometimes.

  9. Mari—what a great summary! I also think the “no” and “never” are part of the duality we use to deal with life. Things are “good” or “bad,” “yes,” or “no,” because it is easier to deal with extremes than what most often happens—the middle ground. If we agree with someone at work, we are on their side, and that may not be the place we always want to be. We don’t praise people at work because they might ask for a raise. So we keep everyone off balance by “no” and “never,” while we figure out how to get on with life. Whew, how exhausting!

  10. I have noticed this many times in speaking with people, and I always wondered why an answer that eventually turns out to be “yes” starts with a “no”. Here’s another negative word I hear alot: “Never”, which I always thought meant not ever, but people say “never, until…” and then the rest of the sentence refutes the “never”. For example: “I left home and never went back, until 3 years ago…” I think in this case people use “never” because it sounds more dramatic, and like what you said about using “no”, it draws the attention to the speaker. Apparently never is a lot shorter than it used to be, and no is the new yes.

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