Double Take: When saying ‘no’ doesn’t get message across

Dear Dr. Wes & Katie: I am so mad at a guy I know and used to respect. We had a really minor thing in junior high. Nothing more than kissing. We now go to different high schools.

At the end the school year I saw him at a forensic tournament and he sat down by me and put his arm around me. I politely asked him not to. He wasn’t trying anything, but I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be touched. He got offended and started doing it more and badgering me about what was wrong with ME that I didn’t want him to touch me.

I ended up in the bathroom crying. I know this wasn’t intended to be sexual, but that shouldn’t matter. I just felt like my “no” didn’t count for anything. I’m still upset about it.

Katie: Ah, the word “no.” Worth only two points in a game of Scrabble, it’s possibly our most undervalued dictionary entry. It also has the simplest definition: No means no. I refuse. I do not agree. Whether it’s a huge issue, like rape, or a comparatively small one, like an unwanted arm draped around one’s shoulders. Every individual has the right to set his or her own comfort zone.

Unfortunately, the whole concept of a comfort zone has become somewhat hazy to our generation, which, despite being born into the digital age, is turning out to be the most touchy-feely bunch of Homo sapiens ever.

Hugging and holding hands are no longer inherently romantic behaviors — they’re just ways in which many teens, regardless of gender, express friendly affection. Wes tells me that a future column will discuss the growing trend of non-dating couples sleeping together; literally just sleeping.

That relaxation of these social constraints seems pretty great, but it also poses problems, especially for those who have greater personal space needs. For them, all that friendliness comes off as awkward physical contact. The size of one’s bubble is a matter of individual preference and true friends are willing to respect each other’s comfort zones.

So, college freshmen, lay down clear boundaries on the first day you start sharing a closet-sized dorm room.

Unfortunately, people of all ages shy away from setting boundaries, fearing the reaction you received from Touchy Forensics Guy. From his perspective, putting his arm around you was an attempt to demonstrate that he felt comfortable with you. He misunderstood your “no” as a rejection of that rapport.

The best thing he could have done was to shake off his injured ego, apologize and start over. But he instead chose to defend his pride with a verbal attack, which indicates that you’re better off without his friendship, at least until he grows up a bit. His hurtful comments were based on his own insecurities, not yours.

Wes: Once upon a time in our society a principal function of teenage girls was to socialize teenage boys, meaning to teach them the proper way to interact not only with girls, but with society in general. That may seem like a quaint old cliche, even a bit sexist, but you just pointed out its practical value.

I hope this guy learned something that will change how he approaches people in the future. This kind of socialization is crucial in the world of human sexuality. Even though his gesture wasn’t overtly sexual, you comment that, “My ‘no’ didn’t count for anything,” indicates that it had the same metaphorical impact on you.

In that light, it might surprise readers to learn that the first thing you teach in a couple’s sex seminar or counseling session is how to say “no.” You want it to come out clearly, but in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. While you and this guy are never ever getting back together, that same principal holds true in friendship or acquaintanceship or any other relationship.

No is a sacred trust.

Of course, that trust goes both ways. You should never say “no” when you really mean “yes” and you just want to make the person work harder. That’s what “maybe” is for. And when someone says “no” to you, never presume they mean anything else.

Katie is right. This guy really should have pulled back (literally and figuratively) and offered you a sincere apology. He could have covered his bruised ego by simply adding, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’ve just missed seeing you. Won’t happen again.” That kind of respect would have made his friendship a lot more appealing than a ridiculous analysis of your personal life.

That brings us back to the issue of socialization. Girls have several names for annoying boys. The kinder ones rhyme with “Nick” and “Slooshwag.” It’s easy to throw up your hands and let them figure out life on their own. Yet, girls have always had a collective interest in making your generation of boys the best it can be, and every encounter you have with each other is a teachable moment.

Thanks for having the courage to stick up for yourself and other young women, and for telling us about it.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.


Keighty Brigman 4 years, 8 months ago

I completely agree the young lady in this scenario had every right to say no, and to have her boundaries respected. It frustrates me to no end when girls are expected to "play nice," and thus compromise their comfort level for the sake of others. It is an error in our socialization that results in this, and contributes greatly to rape culture.

What concerns me about the response here is the implication that girls have an obligation to appropriately socialize our boys. To suggest such also suggests that when boys are improperly socialized, and thus deviate from what is acceptable, it is also on us. The girl in question here said no, and it was ignored. When you state that someone should say no "in a way that doesn't hurt anyone's feelings," you're putting far too much responsibility of the individual feeling violated and not on the person perpetrating. She could say everything perfectly, and he could still choose to take offense. She could do everything perfectly, and he could still ignore her request and continue to violate her. In these situations where people are boundary stomping, it is no longer a priority to "play nice", and instead, she needs to look out for herself. If a guy does not want to be labeled a "slooshbag," perhaps he should make the choice to not be a "slooshbag," rather than waiting around for some girl to have the courage to call him out on it in a "nice way."

Scott Morgan 4 years, 8 months ago

"a principal function of teenage girls was to socialize teenage boys, meaning to teach them the proper way to interact not only with girls, but with society in general..........

I totally agree with Dr. Wes. In the polite society of yesteryear this most certainly happened. All opinions are valued and do not wish to turn this into a rant. But, KSB, if not teenage girls, whom does the job fall?

This maybe one of many causes for what my generation calls boorish behavior by teens nowadays. There may not be as much "instruction" interaction in today's hyper-individualistic society.

*I see and interact with many great young people, and do not paint all teenagers with a broad brush.

Fifty years ago it was common to notice or hear comments something on the line as this. "Wow, young Bob sure has matured since he began seeing Shirley.

For all my shortcomings I've been known to have great manners and understanding regarding women. Served me very well in business dealings through the years.

My young life was void of younger women around my home. I'd have lost a bet involving what feminine hygiene product were used for, let alone the proper interactions with girls.

Luckily at age 14 moved next door to a family including 5 lovely intelligent sisters ages 12-20. The mother of these girls was a strong lady leaning towards feminism. Dated one sister for years, talk about getting educated fast.

Keighty Brigman 4 years, 8 months ago

It is not a woman's responsibility to educate a man to be respectful, as it is not her failure if a man is disrespectful. Yes, it does fail teenage girls when teenage boys are incapable of respecting boundaries, but it is not THEIR (the teenage girls) failure. It is on the boy who made his own choices. To say that you were incapable of learning about feminine hygiene products until you started dating your neighbor denies you any accountability and/or agency, as if you were completely devoid of any ability to pick up a book and learn for yourself. Individuals make their own choices, so when someone touches you inappropriately, it is not on anything you did or didn't do to teach them otherwise-- THEY chose to act that way, as the boy in this scenario chose to ignore the girl writing when she told him No. Do not tell the boys of this world to wait until a girl teaches them not to rape before they stop trying.

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