Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Importance of "No"

The word "No" carries a lot of interesting baggage in Egyptian life. One of the things that I often tell newcomers to Egypt is to remember that in a strange way telling someone "no" or giving unpleasant information is almost considered rude. There are millions of apophrycal tales of asking directions in Egypt that detail how the askers ended up traveling many miles in strange places at the direction of well-meaning people who simply don't want to disappoint the askers by telling them that they have no idea how to get somewhere. We have a custom that I call the Egyptian No, wherein someone simply never quite gives an answer to a request rather than to deny it. An Egyptian No can stretch out for weeks if the person making the request doesn't catch on, but it is a lovely way to avoid a confrontation by simply saying something can't be done. The fascinating corollary of this reluctance to say no is the tendency of most Egyptian males in positions of authority to answer any request or suggestion in the negative the first time that the request or suggestion might be made. One of the pieces of advice given to me by Egyptian women friends was to expect this behaviour from my husband, and to be patient in my maneuvers. Initially, he would tell me that virtually anything would be impossible to do, so I should wait and approach the idea again after a while at which point he would have had time to think about it and would be more likely to be positive in his response. No, it would appear, is the perogative of power in Egypt. After all, in my experience, it has been the first response of any government official. As my late husband used to say, "Egypt is a country where everything is prohibited, and anything is possible." My consideration of "no" in Egypt was partly stimulated by my mother in law's attitude towards childrearing, which was very much at odds with my own, especially during my children's early years when we were often staying with my in laws in Cairo. I was of the opinion that it was never too early to start laying down boundaries and instilling cooperation and obedience in my children with the ideal that as they grew up they would be able to make their decisions independently. This was not the way that most children in Egypt were raised some 25 years ago, and very much the same is true today. First, there is little conversation with children in Egyptian families. I've had supposedly very well educated doctors assure me that there was no point in talking to children because they couldn't understand anything said to them until they were about four years old. As far as I was concerned (as someone who had done graduate work in social and developmental psychology) a four year old child is starting to solidify and is no longer as teachable as an infant. Additionally, by not encouraging speech and conversation, the children are getting a bad start in communication, speech, and literacy...things that will be enormously important later in life. And specifically, children are not told "No, you can't play with the remote control.", "No, you may not have cookies before dinner." or "No, this is an unacceptable type of behaviour.". Instead they are responded to with a noise, a toy, or some other means of distraction...and certainly not with an explanation of why they can't do something or why it might be a bad idea. This provides little basis for later occasions when decisions as to do or not do something might be necessary. What are the fallouts from this kind of upbringing? First, it becomes clear that "No" is the tool of someone in power and when mothers don't use "No" they are obviously not the people in power. This cuts away at the issues of respect for women in general. Another aspect of this upbringing is the fact that chldren never learn that "No" can be a final answer. Friends of mine who are teachers in private schools tell me that both parents and students are almost completely incapable comprehending that "No" actually means something simply isn't going to happen. For them, "No" is a response that may change over time, that can be negotiated, while in real life it may really mean "this simply isn't possible; now think of another solution." Sometimes, the only way to deal with a final "No" is to say that the decider will think about it and let them know later, although both parties know that the answer won't change. Time spent having a year old toddler in my home these days have brought theses issues back to the fore lately. I began telling The Child "No" when he first discovered that it was interesting to pound his tiny hand on the glass doors to my cabinets at about 6 or 7 months of age. He was quite shocked at first, but I generally only have to repeat my "No" once or twice and he gets the idea. These days, like most boys, he is utterly fascinated by anything with buttons such as phones and remotes, but these are off limits to little boys. At first, he would cry when told "No", but my complete disconcern with his distress at being denied an immediate pleasure would quickly make it clear that tactic wasn't going to work. Even his mother finds it rather pleasant to deal with an infant she can talk to. To be totally fair, not hearing the word "No" enough is not strictly an Egyptian trait anymore. I've seen "No"less children from many cultures, societies, and social classes. I'm probably a hopeless curmudgeon but I think that they are all much poorer for the lack. copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


Anonymous said...

What a gift your blog has been to me and my family as we've been adjusting to living in Alex these last 9 months. I found it before we ever moved and have continued to read b/c you have such a great way of sharing the beauty and richness of Egypt along with explaining so many of the culture nuances that most westerners (like myself) might otherwise miss. This blog in particular is very timely for us as we have been struggling to understand recent situations with friends. I truly value this blog and am so thankful I stumbled upon it last year. It's been a great resource for me! Keep up the great posts!
Wendy P.

French said...

I am soo happpy that came across your post, before my planned trip to Egypt:) I never heard about something like "the Egyptian No" and that is a must for every tourist:) Even though that the topics you cover, for the way that a child is thought to be brining up are really serious ones and I am shocked to hear about such a striking difference between most countries' udnerstanding of "No" and the "No" in Egypt,as something that is going to change over time! Very insightful post,Maryanne!Thanks for sharing!

Abuelseoud said...

Thank you for sharing this helpful article .

From my perspective as an Egyptian ,"No" can mean a final answer and can mean that it may change .not only Egyptians do that , I think all the people from different cultures .

I've experienced what you mentioned about asking directions when I was in Cairo ,several times.
but not all the people do .

I like the way you treat the children . the attitudes of parents here towards child-rearing started to change , education and the media played an important role in that change .


Candice said...

I usually try to understand where my Egyptian husband is coming culturally with some of the things he does but I had not figured out the Egyptian no yet for some reason. I guess it's because I didn't spend that much time in Egypt.

He drives me simply bananas! If I say no to something he wants to do or buy, he doesn't accept what it means. Then he harasses me until I say "we'll talk about it later" or "we'll see" which I say when I just want the issue dropped and he seems to see this as a change towards yes and so he goes out and does whatever I said no to... So I guess I should just say "we'll talk about it later" from the beginning and hold firm to that? lol

And my husband also didn't want to talk to my daughter until she was able to talk to him. And it's very limited... He gets really angry when she doesn't accept his reasoning for something. She's not obedient like he thinks she should be. I'd also like her to listen to us a little better and I'm working on it, but I refuse to threaten her with monsters and putting her in the creepy basement like my husband does.

I really hate how typically Egyptian my husband is.

Thanks for sharing this, it helps me put focus back on how cultural thi stuff is instead of just thinking it's all him. lol

HandMade Gifts and Souvenirs said...


Teresa MM said...

Hola , señora es usted afortunada,Egipto es uno de los lugares mas hermoso del planeta, y si además vive, en una zona rural, le doy la enhorabuena.Saludos desde España.

RSA Australia said...

This post will help me so much, I'm off to Egypt now. Thanks for the tip.