Asking for a Friend: Does Being a No-Person Make You a Bad Person?

Photo: Getty Images/Tom Werner
Saying yes to everything is connected to a lot of widely held and generally very positive traits: bubbly, vivacious, adventurous, and present, to name a few. These “take every opportunity that life presents you” people are known as go-getters who are likely to nod at every invitation and accept every little task presented to them. I respect these people to a degree, but I'm certainly not one of them. I’ve always felt myself to be a hard-and-fast no-person; someone defined by the opposite traits of a yes-person…i.e., a salty, disagreeable curmudgeon.

And, sure, that description does kind of track for me at times—but it's not exhaustive of everything I am. Since I'm not alone as a discerning, realistic, rationalist no-person who doesn't like to bite off more than she can chew, I'm calling for a total rebrand for the no-people of the world. I contend that we're good people who have great stuff to offer as the yin to the yes-people yang, after all. So, let's get to the bottom of what makes yes-people and no-people who they are.

Being a no-person = being an authentic person

From a business perspective, the classic yes-man archetype is someone who ceaselessly agrees with their superior. Whether your boss is awesome or toxic, being chronically agreeable can lead to bad business. Research shows that groupthink routinely leads to bad decisions, so deferring to an always-affirmative stance isn't helping anyone meet goals.

It's also worthing noting that constant yessing is a great way to guarantee an experience of inevitable burnout. Someone who is saying yes to everything (like dinner, drinks, dates, extra work, your cousin’s dog wedding on a Wednesday) can't possibly want to be doing each item on the to-do list. To this point, saying no requires courage and conviction because it puts you at risk for being “unlikable” and certain personality types find it cognitively difficult to not be agreeable. That leads to “poor decision-making, anxiety or difficulties in interpersonal relationships,” according to 2016 research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

By saying no to someone else, you're saying yes to yourself.

And even more research backs me up here: A study by management professor Morten T. Hansen, PhD, and author of Great at Work, examined what 5,000 professionals in corporate America did to become top performers. One key finding? Selectivity. When you take your time, stand your ground, and focus on tasks that matter—read: not every task—you set yourself up to do excellent work.

Perhaps the most important positive facet of being a no-person is that by saying no to someone else, you're saying yes to yourself. For me, saying “no” to the status quo is a marker of being in control and focused. The times I’ve rebelled have defined me more than the times I’ve placidly nodded. Saying no has always been important to me, because I have a strong sense of self that I don’t like to sacrifice. Then again…

The argument for saying yes to everything

At their best, yes-people are open-minded, open-hearted, well-intentioned folks who just want to be loved and/or seize the day. And because saying yes is easier than saying no, declining can make things difficult and it's done too often, the choice can reflect on you negatively. But before you write me off as a hypocrite, check my therapist's articulate words on the matter: There’s a big difference between saying “no" to establish boundaries versus doing it thoughtlessly as a reflex.

While there's definitely an art in being able to say no politely, picking your battles wisely and authentically is also part of the equation. This means if you’re having chronic “I don’t wanna” tantrums, you’re practically signing yourself up for a reputation of being stubborn, combative, and not a team player. And you're also giving fellow no-people a bad name, simultaneously raising the regard for yes-people in the public conscience.

As a reformed no-person, I was late to the game on learning this lesson of mindful no-ing, proven by the countless times when saying "no" has burned me. Like when I didn’t do my homework for 12 years. Or when because I couldn’t feign a love for spreadsheets and transcriptions as an intern, I got passed over for a full-time gig as an editorial assistant. (Fun theory: Yes-people take a staircase from intern to editor, while no-people freelance in poverty until one day they grab an elevator to a staff writer role.)

Being difficult can, factually, make your life difficult. So in this sense, defaulting in the direction of "yes" can open you up to more opportunities.

So, yes or no: Does being a no-person make you a bad person?

No, but saying "yes" doesn't make you some positivity pioneer, either. For reference, consider the similarities this debate has to the “are you an extrovert or an introvert” conversation. Just as there's a nuanced, personalized spectrum for introversion and extroversion rather than a single definition, being a yes- or a no-person is also a classification with many shades since no one always says yes or no. We have tendencies, sure, but do these work as absolute labels of who we are in our core? Not at all.

Furthermore, being a good person isn't so much about yes- or no-person so much as it's about having a yes- or no-personality and figuring out what actually works for you. And if we can agree on anything, it’s that we’re all unique snowflakes who simply lean toward one temperament or another—and that maybe-people are the worst.

BTW, there's a big difference between being nice and being a people pleaser. And if you don't have the funds to be involved in your friend's wedding, here's how to deliver a difficult no: declining an invitation to be a bridesmaid

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...