I’m not very good at saying no. That isn’t a humble brag: As a feminist and a (sometime) pragmatist, I think women in particular would benefit tremendously from saying no more often.
We are asked to do more, and the more we are asked to do is often the most low-status stuff. And we say yes more. We shouldn’t, unless it is for things that we really care about, find really interesting, or would benefit us. (There is so much that we care about! So much that is interesting! And everything benefits someone!)
I’m trying. It’s a work in progress.
I recently made some huge strides on the saying no front. (Sort of. You’ll see.) Back in the fall, I was asked to comment on some papers at a conference on my campus. It’s not my field of expertise, and I knew it would be a very busy time of year, but I was asked by a friend, and I knew they needed people. And I figured it wouldn’t be that much work, and I might enjoy it. So I said yes. (Like I said, work in progress.)
The convention for these things is to send your paper to the commentator two weeks in advance. Or thereabouts. I did get one paper on time, and sent a gentle nudge to the organizer that I needed the others pretty soon. About a week later, I got the next one. The third panelist wrote us to say that she was running late, and would have it the following Monday…or Tuesday. By the latest. The panel was scheduled for the Monday after that; no matter what, she was cutting it close. So I’d be cutting it quite close. I was irritated, but blocked off some time Tuesday afternoon to add in her paper to my talk.
Monday: No paper. Tuesday: No paper. I finally got it Wednesday morning, and by this point I was, frankly, fuming. It just felt really disrespectful to me and my time, not to mention irresponsible. And, to be honest, unfair: I simply didn’t have time at that point to do the paper justice, which impacted not only me and her, but the other panelists.
I looked at my schedule, and I looked at the paper, and I took a deep breath. And I wrote an e-mail thanking her for the work, and informing her (quite politely) that I simply wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get to it at this late date. As I wrote, I teach on Thursdays and Fridays, and needed Wednesday to prepare and meet with students. And then it was Shabbat, and then it was Sunday, which is family time. (And while that is sometimes negotiable in extreme cases, I wasn’t sure that someone else’s lateness counted as an extreme case.) I noted that I was looking forward to hearing the paper, and signed off.
It felt really good. For about five minutes. Then, of course, the guilt set in. Because I knew that, if I stayed up late or juggled a few things, I really *could* get to it, though it would entail some sacrifice. And I also knew that while I respect deadlines, for many in my profession, they tend to be somewhat fungible. But what really got to me was that there was no way for me to give my comments without really embarrassing her and really affecting the other speakers. (And I wouldn’t come off so hot either.) That felt deeply unfair, and really infuriating, but it also felt like life.
So I had a choice. Having written the e-mail (and gotten a response that was sort of apologetic but basically said that she’s surrounded by people without families and hadn’t really thought of it), I could hold fast and not include the paper. That was a legitimate choice, and in some ways the easiest one. (And in other ways, the much, much harder one.) Or I could, having made my point(ish), find the time and figure it out.
There’s not a lot of suspense here: Obviously I immediately wrote another e-mail saying that I’d find the time and include the paper. And I did. And, ultimately, I feel good about that decision for myself; I simply didn’t feel comfortable with the other option.
But I’m actually still (as you might be able to tell!) really quite frustrated with the blithe way that my own time was treated. Look, I get that things come up and that deadlines can’t always be met. I understand; I spend a fair bit of time balancing things myself. But that wasn’t the case here. This wasn’t a last-minute emergency. This was just a last-minute effort. And that can happen, but it really shouldn’t happen when other people are also in the picture.
So I’m trying to be generous, but also trying to insist on my own rights. And I’m not sure that my really lame compromise (saying no and then saying yes) was really the best way forward. But I’m also not sure what else I should have done.
I really do understand that life happens. But I also ask, or maybe insist, that people recognize that while life happens, it happens to all of us. And we all have one. That means we have to be generous, but it goes both ways: Let’s be generous not just to those under deadlines, but those waiting for them. Because we have deadlines, too. Because we have lives, too. Because we want to be able to say yes, and we don’t want to regret it.