Just Say No

I first thought of writing this post in late March. I was then in the thick of my research, and had just experienced a couple of examples of the phenomenon that I outline below. I imagine that what I write will feel familiar to others who have undertaken ethnographic research in less economically developed countries. Hope you enjoy!


As the weeks spent in Guatemala pile up behind me, I’m pleased to find my Spanish is improving rapidly. However, there’s one word I still stumble to pronounce. This word,  paradoxically, you can say without learning a pinch of español: ¡No!

What do I have to say No to? I have been warmly welcomed in many communities around Fuego, and when I receive requests to share my time and company, I usually accept with alacrity. However, I have to say No to most requests of a financial persuasion: money, aid, or resources. Often it can be pretty funny, but sometimes I find it overwhelming to deal with these demands and the expectations that they imply. Some examples of requests recently made of me:

  • “Will you pay me for participating in this research?”
  • “Can you lend me $$$ for this thing?”
  • “Our community is working on [insert project]. How can you contribute?”

On occasion someone is particularly barefaced and may say, almost literally: “I’m poor and you’re rich. Give me money!”

Why are these requests so exhausting to deal with? Why do “Sorry, but no” seem to be the hardest words? My first answer is, this is an issue of personality. I know that I am both a people-pleaser and enjoy being generous. However, I think this difficulty also pertains to several larger social phenomena. In general, I would argue that women much more than men are socialized to be nice and polite; to please and to acquiesce; to demur rather than to deny.  This root issue is given ground and nourishment by two additional factors: “machismo” culture and going solo. I find machismo alive and kicking (and scoring own goals) in Guatemala, sustained by forces such as Catholicism and language. I noticed that many demands I receive are made, very directly, by men older than me, and even though I have to be firm in my refusal there is almost invariably an expectation that, given their seniority and sex, I will listen politely to the request – no matter how outlandish. In addition, being a lone researcher in an unfamiliar country makes you vulnerable. I caved to appeals once or twice because there’s no-one else there in the moment to take your side, or to keep you strong. Finally, local people usually ask me for money because I am a white westerner, and in their experience, white westerners usually have money. (Side note: when I visit the communities everyone knows me as la gringa, a term for a white westerner that is also a delicious Mexican dish). After all, most non-Guatemalans who visit these communities are either missionaries or NGO workers, both of whom bring resources. And I do understand the requests, sort of. After all, how shallow does my occasional financial ill fortune (my overdraft is always hanging out, I’m poor because I spent all my money again) appear to someone who has never had any?

Perhaps a deeper understanding of why people ask may help with the feelings of being used, or with “asking fatigue”. Some of the reasons that I’ve thought of include living the saying, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. Alternatively, I acknowledge that while this project is my world, and that I can easily recognize the importance of sharing experience, potential interviewees will usually not perceive any immediate benefits of participation. So, they may ask for more direct benefits. In a cold, clear-eyed view of the world, others only want you for what you can give: see this Cracked article for a good explanation. Finally, have people had some previous bad experience – were promised things that were not delivered?

I started this reflection with asking why it’s hard to say No – and would like to end with some ideas of how to do it.

  1. Be as direct as they are. If people make a direct request of you, perhaps it is their style of communication, and they will not be unduly upset with a clear No. Try it and see! (Great advice from my mum.)
  2. If you’re 100% sure that you are going to say No, try not to put it off with dawdling, vacillation, or floofing. This can make it harder as people will be persistent.
  3. Alternatively … say Yes? I did a couple of times, and while it was mildly annoying in the moment, it didn’t put me in a precarious position. You’ll probably be alright, is the bottom line.

Ultimately, saying No is just another thing you won’t get completely right. I am learning to make peace with sometimes saying No and sometimes saying Yes! And, after whichever answer I give, making sure to pat myself on the back – it’s a difficult world out there!

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