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  • Kristie Sharp Williams

Taking No for an Answer

In the fall of 1989, I began a “gap year” in the middle of my (first) college career. Of course, we didn’t call it a “gap year” back then; we just called it “not going.” During that time, I worked at a mall in Tampa, Florida, for Mass Brothers department store for several months. I was hired to sell men’s cologne, Drakkar, and Polo by Ralph Lauren. They propped me up at the mall entrance to the store and required my attire be a skirt or dress and that my shoes have no less than a one-inch heel. I was to hold the product up in a Price Is Right game show manner and approach males entering or exiting the store, asking them to try the cologne with the goal of selling it.

I know what you're thinking: surely, no man could resist my wit, beauty, and captivating sass resulting in heaps of commission sales.

That's an understandable assumption. But, instead, I was terrible. I mean, like I could have starred in a What Not To Do sales training video. First, I stood behind the display case, which was not allowed because I was not a carnival game attendant beckoning passers-by to “come on over.” Also, I leaned on the display case, an infraction for which I received verbal reprimands many times, motivating me to do it more. Secondly, I only held the product like a Lysol can during manager rounds and otherwise left it on top of the case as a self-serve option. Thirdly, I only barely engaged the people who engaged me first. Fourthly, after 13 years at a private school that required I wear a skirt, I resented the dress code reserved only for us two young women representing men’s fragrance and let that resentment shape my general demeanor. Lastly, I chewed gum all the time, which was not allowed — and I still do. (You are wondering why I took the job — for the discount on clothes).

Sales has never been my forte, and, bad attitude aside, I think because I’ve always been okay with taking “no” for an answer. “Buy this.” “No.” “Ok.” Iconic former British Prime Minister and War guru Winston Churchill is credited with the idea of never taking “no” for an answer. He equaled it to failure. Harsh. And, yes, I failed at being a perfume girl because I hated the job and took “no” for answer. But I don’t think that is always true. By now, I’ve heard “no,” so many times that responding to “no” is my comfort zone. I think we need to teach our kids to learn to take “no,” how to map a plan from “no.” If we can’t or won’t take “no,” then eventually we might stop asking the question because we don’t know how to handle “no,” or facing “no” is too hard. Even a “no” answer moves you forward. With a “no,” you can adjust — open a different door, use a window, or even turn around and find another pathway. I never fault or judge anyone for telling me “no,” because I don’t know what circumstances drive that answer. The answer “no” often has nothing to do with me personally (sometimes, sure, and I’ve got to be okay with that, too.) But, at least by telling me “no,” instead of just ignoring my question, I can move on and adjust my plans or path with a “no.”

Another tidbit for the “Advice You Didn’t Ask For” column is that I always tell my kids to allow others to make the decision to say “no,” don’t do it for them. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask. If you think to yourself, “Well, they are just going to say no,” then you have made the decision for them. You can’t know their tolerance or what they might change to accommodate a “yes,” or maybe you’ve presented something they never thought about. We can’t be afraid to ask and take “no” for an answer.

This has been on my mind because Abbey snagged a fantastic summer internship in her major as a freshman. She let them make the decision. And, she wasn’t afraid to ask because she knew how to take “no” for an answer. They didn’t even have an internship as a position, but she presented herself, her experience, her plans and let them make the decision. And the answer was a “yes.” Then she had to convince her advisor that she, as a freshman, could successfully execute an internship for credit. And, she got another “yes.” Very proud of her for crushing her first college semester and learning to recognize opportunities.