Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with just-say-nolife-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.

Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:

But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.

Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?

However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.

Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.

My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.

There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.

7 thoughts on “Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

  1. Emma Spary

    Great article and one which as an academic with part of my degree in related areas I am able to follow. But your points, made in this form, are never going to get through to even a mainstream media audience. So perhaps one step forwards (ironically) would be to work on communicating these findings better to a general public…


    1. I think you misunderstand what my full time job is, what the goal of this blog Is, and how welcome it is to tell a person you’ve never engaged with before how they’re doing their thing wrong. I’m comfortable with the audience we are reaching here, which is students of anthropology and people who want to learn something about anthropology. We work pretty hard at this, and at teaching in general, so unless you have substantive comments on the posts themselves, maybe this is just not the place for the conversation you want to have.


  2. Pingback: Language links 1/22 | Everyday linguistic anthropology

  3. Sally Dixon

    Great points all, and agree with the argument. Just thinking about how, in bdsm communities for example, there is a kind of difference between a ‘performative refusal’ (part of the fantasy) and a real refusal (accomplished by safe words etc). So in the realm of some sexual activity there is a different gloss given to an action or vocalisation that on the surface, in other contexts, would straightforwardly accomplish a refusal. This got me thinking that perhaps part of the issue in hand is that men (and women, in different ways) have been socialised that the normal refusal behaviour doesn’t apply in sexual contexts, or doesn’t straightforwardly accomplish refusal? It’s part of the whole trope that positions women as the ‘pursued’ object; that women are generally reluctant about ‘giving in’ to sex (because we don’t derive pleasure from it the way men do). I’ve met guys who think this way about women and that ‘being reluctant and largely passive’ is the normal way that women are in sexual encounters. Women are also socialised to not express our own desires, not to be forthright etc (and I like that people are now talking about female desire in addition to consent). So I think there is a perhaps even more fundamental issue about how women’s sexuality and sexual expression is positioned. I think perpetrators of sexual violence (however ‘mild’) exploit this dynamic to manipulate situations and people. But perhaps we need to examine the extent to which men, even those who have no desire to harm, are socialised into thinking that subtle/indirect refusals in sexual encounters are differently-encoded than subtle/indirect refusals in other contexts.


  4. Maddi Bremault

    This is a fantastic post. I think it offers insight into the complexity of refusals in sexual encounters by offering a unique linguistic anthropological perspective. This post has relevance in the topics of power, sexuality, inequality and culturally created societal constructs. It highlights the connection between power and sexuality, and explains how communicative societal norms affect our ability to recognize non-verbal refusals. I believe it is right to say that in western culture, we are much more likely to deflect a question than openly refuse it. This could be out of fear of being judged, coming across rude or hurting someone’s feelings. I think Dr. Shulist makes a great point when she says that it is easier for those in power or of high status to just say ‘no’. Powerful people tend to be confident people, and as Dr. Shulist says, are usually trained to acknowledge others in a direct way. In the example she uses about being asked something by your boss, I think we can all agree we would feel obligated to say yes. People in powerful positions can easily intimidate those below them, since it is a cultural norm to feel obligated to trust and respect those with a higher status then our own. Power can easily be abused, especially when paired with sexuality. I think this offers a good insight for people who are confused as to why some people claim they did not protest as much as they could have when being sexually abused. We have to keep in mind that in the moment when the abuse is happening, the abuser is excerpting power over another person. That could mean overpowering them physically, or just using the resources they have as a ‘powerful’ person to manipulate someone. This can make it confusing and difficult, if not impossible, to say no in some cases.

    Now in regards to the topic of non-verbal cues, I appreciate Dr. Shulist’s comment, “[…] men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation.” I think it is right to acknowledge both men and women are equally capable of recognizing non-verbal cues, since it is a gender stereotype to believe that men are much less likely to pick up body language. It is important to acknowledge that sexual abuse happens to women AND men, when much of the sexual scandals in the media cover only abuse to women. This posts excellently describes how non-verbal or non-direct cues we use in place of direct refusals are linked to our culture. For example, shaking your head or changing the subject may not mean the same thing or be as easily recognizable in different languages or different cultures. In our society we go off the assumption that our non-verbal cues are easily recognizable. Dr. Shulist affirms, “the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts […]”. I appreciate this post because it really does explain the complexity of refusals, and how our ability to recognize or act upon them can definitely be linked to power.

    This blog really made me reflect on my own experiences and interactions with people in every day life. It opened my eyes to the complexity of refusals and how we interpret them. I can now see why there is so much room for the misinterpretation or confusion of non-verbal and non-direct social cues in regards to sexual encounters.


  5. Emmy Marks

    In terms of relaying why a woman would not outright say no we need to take into consideration a reflexive approach and understand the cultural norms of society and how it affects identifying females. Clearly, women have been oppressed by men in many fields and by applying this to the academic field ultimately the information that is given to the public is gendered, for men it is easier to speak one’s opinion freely because of the lack of sexism which has not been prevalent for men, although it has affected women for centuries. Dr. Shulist takes an approach as to how there are in fact many different ways to communicate with proxemics and paralanguage and how they all contribute to an individual trying to get a point across. I enjoyed how Dr.Shulist explained how when people are faced with pressure they may waver in being direct to their oppressor especially when a set person is in a position of power, this is due in part to the fear that may come with losing a position one has worked hard for i.e. employment. When women are so used to being talked down to and being in a submissive role it is important to understand that the word “no” is not in their vocabulary. Meaning they have been shaped into a certain ideal from the society that has caused major problems when these women are put into uncomfortable situations. I connected to this post because of how authentic everything is said within it, many times when males who are in some form of superiority often make you feel like you have to please them. Many times during employment managers would advocate to be nice and kind to all customers and not to dismiss them even if they were being inappropriate. Therefore it is an important topic and one I stand for because of personal connections to sexual harassment and abuse that many women that I have met and connected with have had to face. This post relates to the course in that it is centered around gender and sex and how identifying females face discrimination in our social world. I believe that this post has taken an anthropological perspective because it defines the issue at hand with a cultural relativist mindset in that it uses the study of linguistics to better interpret how western society communicates. Something I would like to see from the author is if there is a personal story or experience behind the article and if there are any links to the original piece the blog post is based on.


  6. Julia Restituto

    I really appreciated this post by Dr. Shulist, because as she herself pointed out, issues revolving around consent have become very prevalent in today’s media. For weeks, I remember hearing about Harvey Weinstein in the news, and the resulting cascade of sexual misconduct allegations against him and various other movie producers, directors, actors, and generally powerful men within the entertainment industry. Aziz Ansari is but another man added to this list, however, the circumstances surrounding his and Grace’s story fall within a perceived gray area of consent. But is this area really that ambiguous?

    I personally do not think so. In class, we watched a short but succinct video entitled “Tea Consent” that gives a pretty good summary on consent and what it means. When in a sexual situation with another person, people generally follow societal “rules” regarding sexual behaviour and what is considered appropriate. In a perfect world, telling your partner “no” or “stop” should mean exactly that; and any sexual advances are expected to cease. However, what if your partner says neither yes nor no? Do you proceed with your actions? What about non-verbal cues? If your partner changes their mind, are you expected to stop?

    I chose this post because issues of consent do occur beyond the glittery streets of Hollywood. For example, sexual harassment can occur in any workplace, particularly in jobs that are male-dominated or where males typically hold positions of power (e.g., law enforcement or the military). Issues of consent can even occur within a household between married couples. Depending on the culture, women typically do not have a say in whether or not they wish to engage in sex with their husbands.

    And I suppose that this is what it boils down to. That oftentimes, two individuals in a heterosexual relationship are not equal. In class, we often hear about how societies and cultures sometimes push for a type of toxic heteronormativity, borne from inaccurate gender stereotypes and ideologies. Within this mindset, women are seen as inferior in almost every sense. They are seen as weak, unintelligent—that biology dictates that they are most responsible for bearing and raising offspring, because that is believed to be “natural”. In another one of Dr. Shulist’s blog posts “Thanks, Mayim Bialik!”, she talks about how language can be used to construe women into being inferior to men, simply by referring to the group as “girls”. It’s amazing how quickly one’s self-worth can be challenged with a single word. Using a holistic anthropological perspective, as well as taking into consideration the ethnologies of various other cultures, consent therefore, has more underlying issues than just you saying no, and your partner/friend/colleague/boss not listening. It can be rooted in one’s upbringing, psychological/mental health issues, power and dominance, cultural constructions against which behaviours are deemed deviant or criminal for which gender—the list is as vast as it is complicated.

    My question then to Dr. Shulist, Dr. Biittner, and to my fellow classmates is, do you think more should be done to educate people on the value of consent? If you agree, then would you say videos like “Tea Consent” are a good way to introduce people to the topic and start discussions?


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