A "No" as a Gift

How many times has this happened: we accept a proposal, agree to a venture or a project not because we really want to, but out of some incomprehensible sense of duty (out of courtesy?) and then regret that we didn't refuse. From an early age, many of us have been conditioned to associate everything we do for ourselves (and not for the sake of others) with being self-centered. As a result, we value the well-being of others above that of our own. The unspoken rules of social interaction based on conditional love imply that we end up owing something to the world when we refuse an unwanted proposal (acting self-centered), and on the contrary, when we behave altruistically and accept, it seems that world now owes us something. This sounds absurd, but it is the reason for many of our troubles.

Social tango provides an opportunity to reconsider this approach entirely. Even the person, who does not like to – or cannot – say "no", will have to learn to do this quite frequently at milongas, otherwise they won't last very long. But saying "no" is not easy. For many people this is a very sensitive topic, considering at least three factors.

First, when saying "no", we're afraid that other people will also notice this, and will stop inviting us. In my opinion, this point of view underestimates the people around us. A more empowering perspective is as follows: "when others notice that I say 'no' – that I am being selective – they will be even more interested in inviting me." Once, when I came to my favorite milonga, I saw a 'new girl' standing by the dance floor and quietly looking around. I wasn't sure, whether to invite her or not: I had not yet seen how she dances. My indecision was gone in a blink of an eye when I witnessed the following. When a tanda began, a young man approached this girl from the side – there were still only a few people around – stopped about two meters away from her and leaned forward in an overly obvious attempt to catch her gaze. The girl noticed this "cabeceo" with her peripheral vision and timely turned away to show that she's not interested. I conclude that – since she turned down this travesty of an invitation – it means that she's selective, which in turn means that she's a good dancer. Taking my time, I walk around the dance floor, properly cabeceo her from across the room, and praise my own intuition for two tandas in a row.

Second, we frequently attribute the meaning of a "no" to non-love, punishment or even disavowal. After all, refusal can be a powerful instrument in the hands of a manipulator. However, the upside is that my perception of a refusal is just a matter of perspective. A "no" has nothing to do with these sentiments, and can be looked at quite differently.

And third, we do not like to get a "no" from others. This, again, is a matter of perspective. A "no" can be considered as a gift, since its alternatives (to accept against one's genuine desire) are quite bleak. It follows then, that a refusal is a win-win, since both end up in a better situation than if the refuser had accepted.
Social tango provides an opportunity to reconsider approach to "no" entirely.
A "no" is much better than "okay, fine." The latter is nothing other than condescension. When someone gets a "no" they feel the tone and the emotion of the refusal, so, quite naturally, different refusals are taken differently. But even a meek but honest "no" is still better than a feigned or reluctant "okay" (unless, of course, the latter is part of a sarcastic roleplay between two old friends).

A clear "no" during cabeceo is better than "I'm not noticing you." A wonderful tanguera taught me this way of communicating during cabeceo at my first festival. If you see someone looking at you, but you do not want to dance with her – look her in the eyes and then look down. This is a cabeceo "no". How is this better than pretending to not notice? The answer is simple.

A timely "no" gives both of us the opportunity to invite someone else for this tanda. When we were talking with one tanguero at a festival, he was complaining that many women were refusing him: "They don't even understand what they are doing – if I'm looking at a woman and she tells me "no", then I'm not going to invite anyone else for this tanda!" He describes the motive for this gesture as respect for his chosen partner, emphasizing the importance and accuracy of his choice. But the way I see it – it's pure manipulation. If I declare: "it's you or no one else," then I'm loading my proposal with a condition, and I'm loading you, my chosen partner, with responsibility for my well-being: "now it's your fault that I'm just sitting here!"

Of course, the mere opportunity to invite someone else does not guarantee anything. At one marathon I received the funniest "no" in my life. I'm looking at a tanguera, whom I've never met, but she's not noticing me. Okay, it happens. Soon I switch my gaze to a tanguera friend of mine, who's sitting a bit closer. She notices this and says to me: "I thought you were trying to cabeceo someone else? Keep cabeceo-ing her!"

A "no" does not at all mean that something must change between two people, or that some reciprocal sanctions should be imposed to restore justice. Imagine that you're passing around home-made cocktails to your guests at a party. You want your guests to enjoy themselves. Will you be offended if one of them says, "no, thank you"? Will you then defiantly refuse to try the home-made cake they brought? Of course not.
Tango is a miniature model of life, a social game that gives us an opportunity to look inside ourselves.
Often, in order to soften the refusal, I'm tempted to explain myself, but it's better not to do this. "No, thank you," period. It's not easy, but this is the best option for both of us. Explanations are attempts to diminish guilt, and I don't believe that we should feel guilty when saying "no." Think about it: is lack of desire a crime? There can be millions of reasons to refuse, but all of them boil down to lack of desire.

If I'm afraid to tell her "no", it means that on some level I'm underestimating her, because I'm imagining that she is weak-willed! It means that I'm afraid she will misunderstand me or take offense, and thus I'm subconsciously ascribing negative qualities to her. Actually, she is quite capable of taking my "no" constructively. Her reaction is her choice. And if she really chooses to take offense, then this is an additional indicator that my intuition did not fail me.

If you think about it, we refuse much more often than we accept: when a tanda begins and I lead someone to the dance floor, effectively this means that I just refused everyone else at this milonga!

Tango is a miniature model of life, a social game that gives us an opportunity to look inside ourselves. If we see something we don't like, we can change it and "grow." Every person in our life is a mirror. In social tango this analogy is especially accurate, because interaction with the person in front of us occurs quickly and on several levels. Saying "no" and taking a refusal are very important skills, and social tango provides endless opportunities to hone these skills and to learn to accept only genuinely desired proposals.
Author: Aleksey Vays. Opinions expressed in articles within this blog may not coincide with those of the editor. Photo credits: Tolik Nemtsov, Еkaterina Denisova
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