When does ’No’ really mean ’No’?

Like most kids at that stage, irrespective of culture, he definitely knew when he did not want to do something. We tend to refer to this time as the “terrible twos” but I kind of want to challenge that image a bit. Why? For the simple reason that at the age of 36, I am having to re-learn how to say the word “no.” But it’s not a pronunciation issue. You see, my then-two-year-old son had loads of something that I currently lack: courage. Ooomph. He didn’t care about my feelings regarding his refusals, he was going to make sure that both I and whoever was near us at the time understood his firm “NO” clearly. My knee-jerk reaction, and that of most parents, is to do whatever we can to turn that “no” into a “yes” or even a “maybe.” But how we do that is crucially important. The way I was raised, “no’s” were not allowed, as they most likely had not been allowed for my parents by my grandparents. Interestingly, this meant that while they (and now I) cannot say no to other people, they can and continue to say no to their children. Of course, it is important to teach our children empathy, however, too much can start to dull our personal boundaries and we start to question our right to refuse anything. Or even that it will be heard at all.

Being raised in a house where I was taught to always obey and never question, I learned to hide my true feelings. I put other people’s emotions before my own, and while that might seem like a very Christian thing to do, it was not so good for myself. Only now, almost into middle age, am I able to see the mistake in this track of learning and the consequences it has had for me personally. I can make so many strange situations seem ok, when really they should not be. I have never been raped (thank God) but I can understand how many of the victims were guilted into their predicaments. While that is another big topic for another time, it is just one example of how the eroded power of ‘no’ can have disastrous consequences. I became much more introspective about this issue after moving abroad. Different countries and cultures have different ways and procedures for refusing things. In America, at least in the Midwest, a simple ‘no’ is usually not enough. For example, let’s say a friend asks you over for dinner but you don’t want to go. You don’t want to hurt their feelings. So, you make up an excuse such as “I have other plans,” a “late work meeting” or some other lie. You never directly say no. Once at a meal, however, it is ok to refuse food. An offer asking if you “would you like some more cake” can be answered with a simple and direct “no, thank you” and it will be respected. You won’t be offered again. With food, no means no.

Let’s replay those scenarios here in Turkey. A friend invites you for dinner, but you don’t really want to go. You can refuse pretty directly, by saying you are not available that night. I still haven’t mastered that, and I usually make up some Midwestern US-worthy excuse of a story that elicits strange, puzzled looks from my Turkish friends. Actually, a simple, direct, “no” is sufficient. They might ask again, but in general don’t pressure too much.

Looking at food

And then there’s food. When it comes to food, Turks and Arabs are a lot alike. No definitely does not mean no, unless you have been asked and given the same response three or more times. An offer of more cake can’t just be answered with a “no, thank you” in Turkish. In this case, language is not an issue. This is all cultural. You will be asked again, but with more guilt-inducing language that makes my overly empathetic soul panic. “Really, you must have more cake, I spent all day making it just for you.”

“Erm, no thanks, I’m really full.”

“But one more piece won’t hurt! Come on, just a little bit.”

“Ok, fine!”

I usually cave after the second request, even though I know if I can just make it to the magic number of saying no three times, I will be kind of in the clear. But I just can’t! And I am usually stuck nibbling something I do not want and pondering why, after 12 years in Turkey, I still get stuck on no’s. Even at times when I do make it to the magic number of three, I find that I am ignored and my host or hostess just puts whatever on my plate anyways. Like, why even ask me then? My Turkish friends are not immune to this, and advise me to just not eat it. But that goes so against my frugal upbringing that I end up at least trying to eat what I never wanted in the first place. And you know what happens next? More is put on my plate. I have to conscientiously make sure to leave stuff on my plate. An empty plate is just asking for trouble in Turkey, whereas leaving a full plate is asking for trouble in the American Midwest. I learned early on the secret of putting a teaspoon over the top of my tea glass to indicate I did not want any more tea. Is there a similar way to show I do not want any more food without the conversation? An empowered no without any speech? One day I am going to turn my used, empty plate upside down and put my fork across the top. Bring it on, teyze! I will challenge my poor hostess. But you know what? Most of my teyze friends will probably just either try and feed me or promptly get a new plate. Why the rules for tea are different, I do not know.

Regardless, I have had cause to evaluate my use of the word “no” in both of my cultures. Part of teaching my son how to say no has been an enlightening lesson for myself as well. As I teach him to make empowered choices, I feel like I am also learning myself. To listen and honor my inner voice, and make sure I am heard. Just without the flailing arms and legs bit that usually accompanies Eren’s use of the word “no.” Not sure I could pull off the “yabancı” card were I to act that way in public. And you know what, there are no guarantees that it would get me out of an unwanted second piece of cake. Short of being able to outrun my hostess, I might just be stuck. But there must be a way, and I am sure I will find it. My impending mid-life crisis depends on it. As I learn to be more empowered in my refusals in my adopted country, it has forced me to dig deep and look at my personal relationship with the word “no” born and bred in my native culture. Truly enlightening indeed.


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