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