Beginning With No

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Yes is commonly thought of as happier and brighter than its opposite twin – no. But Richard Friedlander believes there’s a lot to be said for much maligned negative.

Years ago, when ‘Getting to Yes’ was a popular book, I often thought about writing one called ‘Beginning with No’. It may not be worth that level of devotion, but it’s certainly deserves a few pages.

No is one of the most important and useful words in any language. It may even be the first word a baby speaks, after the obligatory mama and dada. Because, unlike yes, it says, “Stand back. I am my own human being.” It is instinctive, a buffer against unthinking consent, a chance to think about what is really being asked. Yes is a difficult word to retrieve without some degree of embarrassment. A no, however, can often become a yes once you have given it some thought. Or, it can remain a no, with no messy apologies to make.

Beginning with no is a shield that ensures you can live your life on your own terms, at least in regard to what is being asked of you. Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener exemplifies that. To every request made of him, Bartleby says, “I prefer not to” – a more elegant form of no but one that stresses the speaker’s autonomy.

Greeks celebrate every October 28th every year as Ohi Day – the day of no, on which, in 1940, the Greeks said no to Mussolini’s ultimatum to give his troops passage across their land. The iconic moment in the Battle of the Bulge came when, in reply to a request to surrender, General McAuliffe said, “Nuts!” No translation needed.


The first time I asked my future wife out to dinner, on the same day we met, she said … anyone care to guess? That’s right. She said no. She said she would like to, but thought it best to take some time before launching her ship on such dangerous waters. And think how many potentially unpleasant and even violent personal encounters could be avoided by a firm no, that in no way, shape or form could be misunderstood as yes.

Spontaneity has its own charms, but if something is worth getting to yes, most of the time you are better off beginning with no.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator and actor. He lives in the East Bay.