The memory-friendly way to say no

Quite often we need to say “no”. Our language is very rich, and there are many ways to do that. Some ways are very direct, while others are more subtle. The way we choose to say “no” may affect our memory. For more information I suggest reading here, here, here, here, and here.

Japanese: a language that avoids “no”

In most languages saying “no” is easy. In Japanese, it is very difficult. The Japanese people try to avoid conflicts, so the best way to say “no” is telling a short white lie, explaining why there are “no means” to accept the offer.

In other situations when you are offered something it is polite to say “no” at least twice before agreeing.

There is a cute joke about it:

Asked “What’s the difference between a diplomat and a lady?” the reply came:

If a diplomat says, “yes,” he means “Maybe.”
If a diplomat says, “Maybe,” he means “No.”
If a diplomat says, “No,” he’s no diplomat.
But on the other hand,

If a lady says, “No,” she means “Maybe.”
If a lady says, “Maybe,” she means “Yes.”
If a lady says, “Yes,” she’s no lady.

“I don’t” vs “I can’t”

A recent scientific study compared the effect of saying “I don’t” with the effect of saying “I can’t”. When faced with a temptation one group of students was instructed to say “I can’t do X” while the other “I don’t do X”. The student had an exam and when the exam was over was offered a temptation. The students who used “I don’t” formulation, were twice as likely to refuse the temptation. In another study, people who said “I don’t” were 8 times as likely to complete their tasks as people who used “I can’t” formulation, with people who simply said “no” were in the middle.

Scientists think the difference has to do with the feeling of control over the situation:

“I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

When trying to learn a new habit, the right choice of words is very important. People who write me “I cannot create a visualization” have more issues than those who say “I do not create a visualization, but I do create stories”. It is easier to transform stories into visualized animations than empower someone to visualize.

“I did not understand what I just read”

Without proper training, people are likely to misunderstand and forget what they read. Often, simply rereading does not help. Before rereading it is useful to map what we do understand from the document vs the things we apparently missed. It is easy to fill-in the details we know we missed. There are also things we misunderstood without knowing – full comprehension is not an easy task. By testing and retesting our comprehension, formulating the questions we need to answer, we can ensure proper understanding at least of the subjects we question. So instead of saying “I did not understand”, we cab say “I understand A and I understand C, now I need to understand how A leads to B and B leads to C”.

“I did not get this last thing”

Quite often we miss something a person says briefly, especially when we need to generate an immediate answer. Unfortunately, someone’s name is the most common thing we miss. Being skilled in the art of memory, we can easily generate the association between a person’s name, appearance, and a hobby or profession – for example, generating a simple PAO visualization, referring to the name and the hobby in conversation, generating audio associations for the strange names. However, we do need to get the name right, to begin with. Calling someone by a wrong name is not an option. The easy thing to do is memorizing two or three hypothesis, e.g. “That guy who loves art named Oren or Yaron” and then verifying the hypothesis with a third person or a list.

“I failed”

Admitting failure is one of the hardest things to do. Many people consider me somewhat successful, probably because I do not disclose all the times I failed. Good people fail, and arguably more often. As a bonus read these quotes about success and failure. Each time I failed, after dealing with the inevitable fallout, I reframed the situation into “I tried ___ and learned ___”. Even though our lessons quite often look simple and stupid, they are the foundation of our future success if we persevere.

When faced with trauma, our initial response is “I want to forget”. However, if the same trauma happens to a distant acquaintance we might enjoy the story and learn from it. When we dissociate with the trauma and focus on the narrative, we can turn a personal trauma into a learning experience. With some training, we can say “Here is a funny story that happened. And this is how it made me stronger”.


Some ways of saying “no” are empowering, while others are damaging. By formulating the right response we can turn our disability into strength and failure into a learning experience.

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