Just Say No

Once again, Matt shares his unique perspective on small-town living.

In Honor of Nancy Reagan’s Death and Her Ludicrous Drug-Abatement Slogan —We Explore the Untapped Power of the N-Word

I’ve never understood the suburbs. Apart from being vacuous cultural and spiritual waiting rooms there is just a logistical aspect that doesn’t make sense to me. You can’t walk anywhere, and it takes forever to drive anywhere, because there is no anywhere in a suburb. Yet, at the same time there isn’t any nowhere, either. It isn’t quiet, the views are banal at best, yet it’s completely and utterly lonely in the way that only things with no past and no future can be. In short, I don’t understand why so many choose to live in a suburb because it seems to me to be the worst of both worlds, not the best of both worlds as is often advertised. None of the convenience and culture, none of the quaint charm, all of the traffic.

But for us upper-midwesterners there is a secret allure hidden between the strip malls and the townhome complexes of Maple Grove and Brookfield and Elmhurst. We are drawn to the suburbs because in a suburb you never have to say “no” to anyone, and saying “no” is the hardest thing to do for any Scandinavian Lutheran-American worth their salt. Growing up Midwestern means that you treat any collectively consumed dessert (say, a pan of brownies) like a Zeno’s paradox wherein, as the brownies come closer to being totally consumed each person will begin taking only half of what remains in the hopes that the brownies will never actually be totally consumed in a futile attempt to avoid being the unlucky soul who consumes the final crumb, being thusly labeled as “the one that hogged all the brownies.” Our desire not to offend anyone is simply pathological. And so it makes sense that we would wholeheartedly adopt suburban living – lord knows there’s room enough to develop a cornfield or two, and the prospect of not having to step on anyone’s toes is simply too much of a relief to pass up.

As a good Minnesotan I have been subliminally trained my whole life to avoid confrontation and the training has been quite effective. For me, impending confrontations can cause anything from backaches to sleeplessness to diarrhea. So it is ironic (or perhaps karmically approriate) that my career as the administrator of a small private school puts me in the position of saying “no” quite frequently.


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No, we don’t have enough money for the chemistry equipment that would make your job easier and bolster your students’ education.” “I know that you live in a place with virtually no quality employment options but, no, you cannot fail to pay your tuition without incurring some kind of penalty.” “No, you cannot leave math class to go get a coffee.” “I know you’ve worked here for many years and that it brings you a sense of joy and satisfaction but, no, you cannot work here anymore.” “Thank you for spending hours on your application, and years of day-dreaming about enrolling here, but, no, you can’t come to our school.”

Now, I passionately love my job, and I still get to say “yes” a lot more than I have to say “no” but having to be the one who points out the financial, logistical, and ethical shortcomings of people and their dearly held ideas can wear on a guy, especially one raised in rural Minnesota where the phrase “go to hell” is often translated as “I’m sorry I can’t talk right now, I’ve got a roast in the crock pot that needs to come out.” Doing this job in a suburb would be easy, too easy. But in a small town our confrontations are not kept at bay by a satellite dish and a quarter-acre of well-manicured lawn. Many social events in our little town for me begin with a quick scan of the environment for people that I’ve relieved of employment, or people that I’ve sent letters threatening collection action to, or people whose children I’ve helped expel from school. It’s not always the most festive way to start a party.

But even though a small town in the upper Midwest is the hardest place to say “no” I don’t think we should all move to New York City and I definitely don’t think we should stop saying “no”. In fact, I think we would all be well-served to say it a lot more. Though I’ve mostly come to grips with saying “no” in my professional life I still find myself in a state of psychological and/or emotional paralysis when encountering confrontation in my personal life. It seems the closer you get to home the harder it is to say “no” and it follows that saying “no” to oneself can be the hardest thing of all.

But if we want to protect our land from developers, protect our neighbors from the vicissitudes of a small town economy, protect our friends from gossip, protect our children from the sloth and entitlement that can come with growing up in a culture of consumption, protect our spouses from exhaustion and loneliness, and protect ourselves from, well, ourselves, then we need to get better at saying “no”. A small town is the hardest place to do it but it is also the best place, too. In a suburb or a big city, saying “no” is an ejaculation of anger, or worse, anomie. But saying “no” in a small town is an act of humanity, with all the reward and responsibility that being human entails. So, take a tip from Nancy, just say “no”.


















  1. Those who’ve come up in the land of Midwest nice could benefit from a year in NYC as a form of finishing school. A few of the lessons learned would be ‘time is precious’ as in small talk devoid of ideas and/or impertinent to the task at hand is simply not helping. ‘What you see is what you get’ as in there is no veneer of niceness to veil the hidden agendas of your passive/aggressive neighbors. And ‘suffering fools’ is limited to fool’s. When someone doesn’t seem to know what ‘No’ means it is quickly followed by ‘Ya gotta problem with that?’ In addition to experiencing the cultural diversity and the rich mosaic of American English, the City offers a first class opportunity in assertiveness training. Advice for those about to enroll: Never tell anyone you know something you don’t or are experienced in something you’re not. If you’re unable to make an appointment on time or worse cancel, give the earliest advance notice to reschedule. If this advice goes unheeded you will find yourself regarded as unreal and relegated to the ‘must avoid list’. Behavior that passes for standard operating procedure on the West coast simply doesn’t fly in NY. If you’re not a tough-minded serious person, I suggest moving to California or remaining where you are if that’s working for you.

    • U’re absolutely right, Elliot. as U know, I moved here after living in New York and New Jersey for the previous 20 years. ‘No’ is absolutely essential, as is everything that comes with it. The direct, definitive nature of the word sound leaves little room for error. it’s not passive/aggressive or ambiguous, and sometimes it seems that people want or need that wiggle room provided by non specific communication.
      A bit of time in a place like NYC would, indeed, provide a good finishing school.


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