The Importance of “No”

Why rejection is better than nothing

Paul Greenberg


Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

When was the last time someone actually told you “no”? If you search your mind or read back through your correspondence, I think you’ll find that this useful two-letter word began fading away sometime in the early aughts.

Today, nothing is the new no.

Perhaps you clicked with someone you met online and proposed a second date. Nothing. Maybe you wrote a passionate essay and sent it to a magazine you admire. Ghosted.

The ever so slight possibility of a “yes” prevents us from seeing the fact that the answer is “no”

And yet, this wasn’t always the case. During my adolescence and early adulthood, clear and stinging rejection, not nothing, was a very big something. So big, in fact, that the very architecture of our psychology once depended upon our ability to process outright denial. What is The Blues other than a deep consideration of repudiation followed by an acceptance? “Call, Response, Release,” the Langston Hughes scholar George Bass used to boom out to us in the lecture hall when he would hold forth on what makes the Blues work.

By losing “no” we’ve lost an essential gear for working through rejection. Instead of “Call, Response, Release” we have “Call, Call, Nothing.” Instead of The Blues we have The Blahs. Reams of open parentheses, buckets of unanswered questions. The ever so slight possibility of a “yes” prevents us from seeing the fact that the answer is “no.”

Dalton Conley, the Henry Putnam University Professor in Sociology at Princeton, told me he thought the extinction of “no” might stem from an uneasiness we have with leaving negative tracks in the internet snow. In a world where every statement is recorded and archived, Conley explained, “people are fearful of sending a rejecting missive out into the ether.” None of us wants the world to know we’ve said no. We’d prefer to present as being open to all comers.

That’s all well and good when you have the time to vet all those comers. But another sociologist friend, Andrea Voyer at the University of Stockholm, told me she thought that the ability of bots to mimic personal requests has short-circuited our yes/no switch. “Direct…



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World