It’s Always No Before It’s Yes

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I was having lunch with a friend in a café in the 3rd arrondissement, and she wanted a fruit salad but it wasn’t on the menu. Still, we were regulars there, and since they had fruit salad with brunch that day, we figured it might be possible.

The waiter shook his head and said it wasn’t possible.

We pressed him to ask the manager because, well, why not? He shrugged and relented. Eventually, he came back with a fruit salad, and presented it with a wave of his hand as if he’d just turned water into wine.

Well, he had just done the impossible—at least in his head.

Those of us who live or spend any length of time here are pretty used to this—immigration authorities, the post office, banks, restaurants. In France, it’s always “no” before it’s “yes.”

By the French way of thinking (and yes, I’m generalizing here) things are done how they are done. Period. Why on earth do you want it to be done differently? There are rules, parameters, traditions, boundaries. Never mind that there might be a better way, or a more efficient way; a way to create a win-win, a workaround. There’s no reason for any of that. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and stop making waves.

Please Don’t Make Me

I have seen a look of utter panic on the face of a salesman when I asked if he might sell us the tassel in the store display since they had lost our order, and were now out of stock. His eyes narrowed as I spoke, scrutinizing the incomprehensible woman before him who dared to propose such a radical idea.

“Sell the displaaaaayyyyyy?” he asked.

“Sure, why not?” I chirped.

His eyes popped wide now. How could he possibly—mais non! It’s just never been done. The display is the display, and it can never ever be anything else.

Many expats here (even many French) find this behavior exhausting, infuriating. Even more so for straightforward Americans who are used to bend-over-backwards customer service. They see “no” as an impasse, a barrier toward progress.

In France, “no” isn’t really no. It’s an invitation to dance.

But in France, “no” isn’t really no. It’s an invitation to dance—even if your partner is unwilling. In the country known for its diplomacy, if you use a little charm and finesse, can get you exactly what you want.

“Are you sure?” I asked the salesman with big, round eyes. I found another tassel that worked just as well in the display and offered it as an alternative in hopes that it might allay his concerns. Surely, it would work perfectly well.

He pressed his lips together in protest.

“Are you sure-sure?” I smiled broadly. “Really, really sure?” I tugged on the tie, cajoling him into acquiescing. “But look how easily the tassel can come off.” I assured him it could be swapped out quickly and no one would be the wiser.

“I’m untying it,” I sang, slowly teasing the knot of the tassel. “Here I goooooo…”

He looked on, wary yet fascinated. Would I really dare do it?

My eyes said “pretty please” while my hands took the dare.

It was useless to resist me; he helped untie the tassel and replaced it with the other.

We stood back and surveyed the display. “What a good idea,” I said. How smart we were to find this solution. “Plus, this tassel works even better with the display than the other one.”

He nodded, pleased with himself. He handed me the tassel I’d wanted, smiling benevolently. “If you’re happy, I’m happy.” And he did seem genuinely happy, as if I’d shown him there was another way, freeing him from his Prison of NOs.

Yes We Can!

Sometimes you just need to give someone permission to break their rules. Their limitations need not be yours. You have to invite the “yes” into the conversation. And you do it by understanding everything is possible, even before you speak. Knowing “yes” is already attainable will take the struggle out of it, the push. There’s no strong-arming here; it’s a spirit of cooperation that makes it work, even if you have to tease it out of someone at first. Granted the “yes” might not look as you expected. But it may, in fact, be even better than you expected. When the restaurant brought the fruit salad to my friend, it was glorious and delicious, as if our request allowed them to freely express themselves. And you could see they took pleasure in pleasing us, like the man in the shop. “Yes” is powerful.

Living in Paris, and dancing this dance, has taught me how to turn “no” into “yes”; to not accept the obstacle before me but to work with that obstacle and turn it around for a better outcome. Life is all about negotiation. Why accept the first answer—especially when that answer comes from you, and your own fear and resistance?

Are You a Yes Person or a No Person?

Are you saying “no” before you say “yes”? Do you only see the hardships, or the challenges in the path toward your dreams, and does this stop you from having the life you want?

It’s too complicated. I don’t know how. I don’t have enough money. It feels far-fetched. My friends and family won’t understand.

There will always be “no” in our lives. And there will always be someone to say no to you and your dreams. Sometimes it’s an obvious “no!” Sometimes it’s more subtle, insidious, like an obstacle we place in our own way in the form of a destructive relationship, or a reluctance to take charge of our finances or our health.

Of all the naysayers out there, you’re the one you can control. If you can say “no” easily, you can say “yes” just as easily. It’s as simple as changing your mind, your perception of the situation. Change your mind, and you change your life.


Turn ‘No’ Into ‘Yes’ With This Exercise

This simple list-making exercise has helped me work through my negatives, and take charge of changing them into positives.

  1. Divide a page into 4 columns.
  2. In the first column, make a list of all the reasons not to pursue your dream. Don’t be stingy; really indulge all your fears.
  3. In the second column, beside each NO, write down how each makes you feel. For example, helpless or angry, etc. Draw a box around this list.
  4. Review each NO again. In the third column, write down what you can do to turn each into a YES. What are the steps you can take to create actionable positives, even if it’s something you don’t have the skill set to accomplish.
  5. In the 4th column, if there are solutions you don’t have the skills to handle for yourself, list the ways you can solve this. Is it reaching out to another? Doing research online? Taking a webinar (or if you have the funds, a course)? In other words, don’t take “no” for an answer. Dig until you have a truly actionable solution that allows you to begin the same day.
  6. Sit back and look at your list of NOs and solutions. Note the emotions you’ve boxed in. Do you feel better after you’ve made the actionable list? If not, spend some more time with the list. If you still have fear, review your to-do list. Have you really found workable fixes for each NO, or are you creating limitations within the solutions (for example, you haven’t addressed your skill challenges)?
  7. Redo what you need to. Review your solutions again until the emotions in the box no longer have power.

What you’ve created is an action plan. Now all you need to do is tackle that plan one task at a time. “No” will become “yes,” task by task. Action trumps fear, and soon you’ll be on your way.

LET’S DISCUSS! Tell me about a NO that stands in the way of your dream, and share how you can turn it into a YES.


Learn more about the journey that led to My (Part-Time) Paris Life in my memoir of the same name,  ON SALE NOW! Nominated “Best Paris Book” by Expatriates Magazine.

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6 responses to “It’s Always No Before It’s Yes

  1. I definitely lean towards ‘Non’ so much quicker than ‘Oui’. My strong desire to move to France: “But I own a home, have a mortgage, here.” “My husband really wants to stay in the US.” “My work is here.” “How in the world would I find a job there?” “I don’t make enough money.” “I don’t have enough in savings.” “I only speak a little French.” “A girl can dream.” Ahem…

    • Ok Becky, lots of questions, lots of NOs. That’s normal. I challenge you to do the exercise. There are expat real estate and relocation agencies like Adrian Leeds Group who help with all that. So make your list of NOs then the emotions then the solutions. Don’t take no for an answer. I do want to know how it turned out so message me!

  2. Hi Lisa, what a lovely article! Thankyou for reminding us how important it is to try for a yes (in a charming way of course) x

  3. What a marvelous post! I have indeed observed this propensity to say “non” in French culture, I’ve always taken the refusal at face value. Now, thanks to you, I’ll know there’s at least the possibility of getting to “oui” (though I still doubt I’ll be half as charming ;).


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