At the Dinner Table: What “No Means No” Really Means

I was on a date recently with a man I’d met through mutual friends.  When the waiter brought the check to the table, my date casually remarked, “I’ll get this one.” “Oh that’s alright, I’m happy to split it,” I replied with a smile. He pressed me, saying, “It’s fine, I’ll take care of it.” "No, thanks.  It's really ok.  I don't mind paying, too." "I said don't worry about it - I'll handle it." I reached for my wallet as I yet again said, “No, that’s ok, I appreciate it, but I’d really like to pay for my own meal.” “I said I got it.” “No.  Really, it’s kind of you to offer, but we should just split it." It was at this point that he and the waiter exchanged a knowing look, which I’ve come to identify as the “bro code” look.  It’s the look that two men give each other when one of them is trying to get a woman into bed with him and he needs the other’s cooperation.  I see this look in bars more often than I’m comfortable with – as if the men are negotiating over the price of a cow. So my date and the waiter exchange this look, and the waiter ignores the credit card in my outstretched hand, instead accepting my date’s card.  My date looks back at me, smiling. I blinked.  Exactly how many times did I need to say ‘no’ in order for him to hear me and respect that? In Gavin de Becker’s New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Fear, he describes how a man’s inability to accept ‘no’ is actually a strong indicator of a much bigger problem with the way he relates to a woman.  He writes:
Declining to hear ‘no’ is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it.  With strangers, even those with the best of intentions, never, ever relent on the issue of ‘no,’ because it sets the stage for more efforts to control.  If you let someone talk you out of the word ‘no,’ you might as well wear a sign that reads, ‘You are in charge.’”
I never read truer words in my life.  Four times I demurred, telling my date that I did not want him paying for my meal.  And four different times, he ignored me, or brushed aside my refusal.  He then went ahead and did what he wanted anyway, completely disregarding me and my opinion.  I can’t think of a stronger signal he could have sent to tell me that he didn’t respect me. I would have been perfectly happy to sit there and discuss it with him.  I would have been happy to explain my reasons, and even give him an opportunity to counter those reasons.  But he didn’t engage with me.  He didn’t ask me my reasons because they didn’t matter to him.  He went virtually behind my back to ensure I had no say in the matter.  (We’ll save my disdain for the waiter for another time, but I find him equally complicit in this). When I’ve explained this theory to male friends, they become immediately defensive.  'He meant well!'  'He was just being nice!'  'He would have stopped if you hadn’t smiled as you said ‘no’ - if you hadn’t appeared to be cute about it. If you hadn’t seemed so wishy-washy about it.' This is a valid although ultimately naïve assertion.  It’s true that it’s up to the woman to be clear – to communicate effectively.  Men aren’t mind readers, and it’s often profoundly unfair to expect them to “know what we meant” when we didn’t exactly say “no.” That being said, men aren’t idiots either.  “No, thank you,” “I appreciate it but I think I’ll pass,” “I don't think I want to,” and “I’d rather not” are universally accepted as simply polite ways of saying the exact same thing: NO. For men to pretend that women need to put both hands in front of them and yell “no” loudly and aggressively in order to be understood, is insulting to everyone involved.  Women are taught from birth that every time we assert ourselves, we might as well put a big sign on our foreheads saying “I’m a Bitch.”  And especially on a date or in a social setting, no woman wants to ruin a fun time by introducing an aggressive current to the atmosphere. The one thing you’ll notice I haven’t explained here in this post are my reasons for saying no.  And that’s because they don’t matter in the context of a discussion about what "no means no" means.  I could have a totally legitimate reason for saying no.  I could also not.  I could have a silly reason. I could have an utterly ludicrous and totally irrational reason. It doesn’t matter.  The value of my decision here isn’t the issue.  The value of my decision-making ability is.  It was my meal – ergo, my decision.   When it’s anything that affects me, and not you the man or both of us together, it is unequivocally my decision and mine alone.  You're certainly welcome to offer to pay for my meal, and when I graciously decline, you're welcome to ask for my reasons.  You're welcome to ask me to discuss them with you, but I have no obligation to convince you that I'm right or that my reasons have merit. Why is this such a big deal to me, you might wonder?  Simple.  The majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances, and often romantic interests, and as such it would be almost foolish of me not to consider that I may end up dating a rapist.  Sound like a pretty big leap?  Let's take a look. Rape, let’s remember, isn’t about sex. As we know, rape is about power.  It’s about control.  It’s about not respecting a person’s agency, or a person’s right to make decisions about her own life.  It’s about deciding that your word is more important and more valuable than someone else’s.  Rape is you believing that your decision to have sex is more powerful than someone else’s decision not to. “Rape is rape.”  “No means no.”  We make all of these things sound so simple.  But the truth is that they aren’t simple. Do I honestly believe that this guy would have ever pushed me down and forced me to have sex with him while I was kicking and screaming and crying?  Frankly, I really have no idea.  This person was a virtual stranger to me.  All I can really say about him is that, much like anyone else on a date, I was using the dinner as a chance to get to know him.  I do this by picking up signs, reading signals, and generally interacting with a person. And because rape and sexual assault are crimes that women are perpetually taught to protect themselves against, I admit that I do need to ask myself while on a date with a stranger, “is he exhibiting any behavior that should be a warning signal to me?” I have to ask myself, “will you be the one who eventually rapes me?” I don’t like going through my life asking these questions any more than I imagine the men I go out with like that I ask myself these questions about them. I’m confident that the men I go out with are nice guys.  That they aren’t the few men out there who are committing the vast majority of the rapes.  And I certainly don’t think that every man who insists on buying my dinner is a rapist. What I will say though is that dismissing a woman who says no, denying her agency and her right to make decisions that affect her life, going behind her back and manipulating a situation so that she does not have control, is a dangerous signal. This tells me that you don’t respect me, that you don’t value my decisionmaking ability, and that you don’t acknowledge, appreciate, or respect my agency. Maybe you’re not ever going to rape me.  But one thing is for sure: you won’t accept me as an equal partner in a relationship, and more likely than not, this dinner is just one of the ways in which your lack of respect for me will manifest itself. At the end of the day, my life, my agency, my independence, are all worthwhile reasons to not have gone out with this guy again.  It could have been a one time thing that actually wasn't a big deal.  Then again, it could have been an indication of a much bigger problem.  Either way, my date made me feel like I didn't exist, like I was a child taking directions instead of a grown woman making a choice. And ultimately, a man who makes me feel like that isn't one I'm ever going to be interested in, anyway.   Photo Credit: Chavar Ross via the Creative Commons License

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  • Suzanne

    This is an excellent piece, Abigail, thanks for articulating it. I find that the process of wearing someone’s self esteem down happens in exactly this fashion — denying their agency and independence. It’s too easy to dismiss these little things that, over time (or perhaps in an alcohol fuled way ignite) into a much more unreasonable situation. But, by then, one is beaten down and convinced that one is to blame. On a more subtle note, I find that when I offer to pick up half the check on a first date the man looks at me at though he has been kicked in the balls. The look seems EXACTLY like he is thinking to himself “she is saying she is not sexually attractive to me and is not planning to sleep with me”. It feels so silly. Usually, I am just trying to be polite. Why is offering to split the check so emasculating?

    • Abigail Collazo

      Suzanne: I think you bring up two distinct and very important points. The first is that sometimes this lack of respect and the tearing down of one’s agency – one’s importance – is done subtly, gradually, in ways that are not immediately obvious. It’s how abusers wear us down, quite honestly. The second point about masculinity and the role men are supposed to play, I think, is a much bigger question that has multiple levels. I have had the same experience as you. If a woman asserts her own agency and independence, how do we get men to not see that as a challenge, or as an affront to their masculinity?

  • Mary

    A friend once told me that the fact that I haven’t encountered abusive men is not just luck, but is also because they look from more compliant targets. This makes me wonder if perhaps we should encourage our friends, daughters, students to be a bit contrary right from the beginning, to weed out the potential abusers and controllers.

    • Abigail Collazo

      Mary – I think this is very true. It’s very hard to live life like that, always extrapolating behaviors and trying to figure out what certain behaviors might signal about the future, but in all honesty, better safe than sorry!

      We posted a great piece by Brian E. last summer about exactly this topic. Brian’s been working in the criminal justice system for over ten years, mostly with domestic abusers. This post he wrote is about how to recognize the signals, what to look out for, and what that behavior looks like in the beginning. Check it out here:

      Thanks for reading! I think you’re absolutely right about the fact that we need to take a step back and ensure our daughters (and sons!) are looking at such behaviors objectively and not in the context of “it could be worse.”

  • WonderWoman

    I understand that this can become dangerous if it starts to be extended too far, but sometimes the rules of polite society do require me (a girl) to say no to something I would love to accept. It depends on the family andalso the country that I’m in, but there are certain things that to accept before refusing 3 times would be exceptionally rude (usually a meal when visiting). My understanding of our culture is that a man is expected to fight to pay on a date (especially a first date). I understand your frustration, but I have to sympathize with your male date, as his behaviour reflected our cultural rules. I do not think that we can necessarily infer that he would
    disrespect you from his behaviour. I personally will always fight to pay, and I am glad that my boyfriend always fights back. Had he ignored your reasons, I would agree that that may be a signal, but I just wanted to point out that there are strict cultural rules that dictate behaviour in certain situations (what no means when refusing a meal or paying on a first date). It does not, should not extend outside the realm of those certain situations.
    I think you believe that this set of rules needs to be changed, but unfortunately that does require a
    iscussion and, furthermore, one that is initiated by you. If you want to change the culture, you have to work within it, or at least acknowledge its existence.
    I think that a blog post arguing why men shouldn’t have to pay on the first date and how women who want to pay can state their desires in a nonconfrontational, convincing way would have been a much fairerand effective response

    • Karl

      >> I personally will always fight to pay, and I am glad that my boyfriend always fights back

      that’s not a relationship, That’s a soap opera script. Which after all, ==is== what passes for a relationship nowadays amongst the indentured servants. I’m glad you’re happy with your lovelife.

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  • anna

    I don’t know if you’re checking the comments on this still, but I just wanted to say that you have given me a lot to think about. I’m normally finely attuned to how people treat me and what they think of me (whether I care is another matter) but this did not occur to me.

    Thank you for writing this, and all of the writing you do.