(Mis)Communication And Misreading Refusals

A post titled Mythcommunication over at the sex-positive blog Yes Means Yes raises some fascinating issues about the cultural refusal to hear the word “no” in conversation, and the ramifications for analyzing situations of sexual violence.

Drawing on a published study analyzing refusals in everyday conversational language, the post reaches the conclusion that “in sex as in normal conversation, people typically use and understand softened and indirect refusals.” This is important for understanding how people communicate about sex, as there are great cultural pressures especially on women to be polite and not hurt anybody’s feelings. Hence, the women in the study tended to phrase their refusals in terms of inability rather than unwillingness: “I’d love to, but I can’t because…” instead of “I don’t want to.”

However, there was another aspect to the study that really caught my attention. The author pointed out: “Since softened and couched refusals are how refusals are typically issued in conversation, that’s how they are usually heard, too.” In other words, saying an explicit or soft “no” does not only communicate at the verbal level, it also meta-communicates: the intensity of the “no” conveys other kinds of social information too. Studies have shown that rapists look for victims who will be easy to coerce, avoiding those who look like they will put up too much of a fight. Hence, gauging how quickly a soft “no” can turn to a “maybe” or a “yes” can tell a rapist that the person may be easily bullied and isolated.

Maybe you’re used to considering how your body language communicates your intentions or availability, but the meta-message at grammatical levels is worth thinking about too. Communication happens at so many levels that it can be helpful–and perhaps safer–to be aware of what you’re actually saying in different contexts.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.