The Most Important Words In Any Language

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When I was a small child learning the ins and outs of getting on in the world, my parents taught me that “please” and “thank you” were the most important words I would ever use.

Up until a certain point, we’re  given everything we want or need automatically. All we have to do is cry, reach, or point. The cookie, stuffed animal, or rattle then become ours. It takes a while to figure out why it would be any different when we begin to speak. But as we get older, we realize that, “I want,” is not good enough to get a positive response.

When we move beyond, “mama” and “dada,” we’re taught that if we want something, we need to ask for it politely. Reminders are necessary for a while, but soon every child learns how to say, “bitte” and “danka,” “por favor” and “gracias,” or “s’il vous plait” and “merci”, depending on what part of world they live in.

There are other words that are as equally important in my life, and I expect in other’s lives as well. They are the words, “yes” and “no.”

Those two words have often been a problem for me. As a toddler, if I said “no,” when I was told to be quiet, I was yelled at or swatted for being disobedient. If I stopped making a ruckus, or said, “yes,” to anything I was asked to do, I was applauded. As a result I learned that “yes” is like saying please and thank you. It’s the polite thing to do. And the word “no,” comes out being something like an insult.

As a young mother, when I was asked to collect money on the block for the Heart Fund? I said, “Sure!” Make cupcakes for the second grade class picnic? “Why not?” Prepare a main course for a neighborhood dinner party when I felt overwhelmed cooking for two small fussy eaters? “Of Course!”

Later, I figured out that saying, “yes” all the time was not always a good thing to do. But still I agreed to do whatever was asked of me. The result was I had little time to take care of myself. There were no quick naps after spending an entire night taking care of of a sick child. There was no time to read a book, or go for a walk by myself.

But how could I say, “no?”

If I did say that dirty word, I felt guilty. It would be an insult to the person who asked me for a favor. I didn’t think any one would like me. I loved being liked. Saying “yes” was a way to be included in a group, a way to make friends, and feel important.

In my sixties, I found out that saying, “no,” wasn’t the end of the world. Most people still liked me even though I’d said a naughty word. There were always one or two who would piss and moan about my refusal, but they were just trying to take something off of their own plates and put it on mine. Those folks are always there in the background, waiting for someone like me to come along. They know from a mile away who will always say “yes.”

Now in my seventies,”no,” has become just as important to me as please and thank you. I still say “yes” often. But these days, it’s because I really want to do something to help someone out, return a kindness, and/or simply want to take part part in something I’d enjoy doing. Guilt rarely raises its ugly head.  When I say “no”, it’s because I’m being kind to myself. It’s because I might need a nap, or  time to finish a piece of writing  I’m working on.  It may also be because I just don’t want to do what’s being asked of me. Whatever it is, I no longer need to make any excuses for myself. I’m in tune with what I need and what I can give.

Do you have problems with the words “yes” and “no”?
How do they make you feel?


  1. Love this! I, too, have lived in the never ending world of yes. I’m learning every day where I begin and end and what I want to say yes to and when I’d rather say no. I’m also giving myself permission to change my mind. Just because I give in and say yes today doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind tomorrow when I come to my senses. I truly think I have lost more friends in the last six months than I’ve had in my entire lifetime because I’m saying no to people and no longer allowing myself to be consumed. It can be very confusing! But, I’m choosing to go blindly forward and do my best to remain open to whatever it is I”m supposed to be learning. Thanks, as always for inspiring thought and reflection.

  2. “No” was very hard for me, especially after I left my public relations job to pursue writing. I knew I needed to say “no” and say it a lot but that was REALLY difficult. I learned I could say “no” more easily if I did it in a helpful way. My message track went like this: “Thank you for asking me. My plate is full right now so I can’t take on your assignment. Let me suggest a few people who could might be able to do for you.” I didn’t burn any bridges; I helped those who called; I didn’t invest any more than a couple of minutes.

    • Carol, At first I saying “no” in a very loud voice which wasn’t helpful at all. I like your way of saying no and being helpful at the same time.

  3. Dorothy, You’re welcome! Being able to change one’s mind is also a wonderful thing to do. I still can have a few guilty feelings about that, but I’m getting much better at it.I like what you’ve said about being “consumed” by saying yes. It’s so true!

  4. Joan – Like bookends, the two letters “N” “O” support “i” — NiO — helping it to stand tall. Interestingly, “Nio” is a type of Zen Buddhism 🙂

  5. I remembered the phrase “No, in Thunder” from my grad school days. Here’s a letter from Melville to provide a little background. Leslie Fiedler loved the phrase so much he made it the title of a book.

    Helps me get over potential guilt feelings, though I try to be as diplomatic as Carol above.

    • Shirley, I love it! Thanks. It’s always good to be diplomatic. But sometimes it can mess things up even more, if I start making excuses!

  6. Ah yes … the freedom to be true to ourselves that comes with experience is powerful Joan.
    I embraced my “no” in my 40’s and have been working on fully embracing my “yes” now I am near 60. “No”can be empowering, but when overused I discovered it can close us down to possibilities and living fully.
    Finding the right balance for wherever we are in life is really what its about 🙂
    Val x

    • Joan Rough says:

      Val, You are absolutely right. Balance in everything is what I go for. Fortunately, I’m not yet near overdoing my “nos.”

  7. Rebecca Hively says:

    Wonderful blog but no auto links to your daily blog. I had to copy and paste just to read it. Very unusual in a blog. Will this continue?

  8. Joan Rough says:

    I’m sorry you are having difficulty with my website. Mine is not a “daily” blog. I publish a post every Tuesday with links on Twitter and Facebook, which I always link directly to my blog post. If you found me on Facebook or Twitter, you should have been able to link directly to this post. Also if you subscribe to my blog on my website, you will get a notice every time I post here and it should link you directly to my posts. Let me know if that helps and also if you continue to have difficulty. Thanks.

  9. I have problems saying no to some things, but not others. As I think about it, when someone asks for food, I cannot say no. Most everything else, I can. An analyst would have a field day with this one, I think. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your reflections, and I’m so glad you have found your balance between yes and no.

    • Joan Rough says:

      You’re welcom, Saloma. It’s also hard for me to say no to those asking for food and anyone who is in obvious difficulty. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Gail Livingston says:

    I think I learned early to say “yes” and try to please everybody. These yesses continued through college years as I served in offices on campus that entailed extra work on top of academics and sorority work. After that, for some reason, I became very self protective, saying “no” more often than necessary — this after I was working full time and knew I had to have some down time. After my children were born and I continued a career, I had a good reason to turn down everything that would take me away from them evenings or weekends. It got to be a habit after that and I think now has become a roadblock to my making commitments in the world. I am always afraid to sign up for certain times and certain places because I am afraid I won’t want to go or will feel depressed or anxious when the time comes. So my no is now too often based in fear, and fear-based response is never or seldom good. So I may one of the few who needs to say “YES” more often. But how to have the wisdom to know the difference is an issue. I need to establish a matrix to help me say yes to the right things.

    • Joan Rough says:

      Gail, It’s as easy to go overboard with the “now” as it is with the “yeses.” I think trying to stay open to whatever we’re confronted with can help. But I also know how fear can rear it’s ugly head and cause us to panic.

  11. Love this post, Joan. It reminds me of a saying in Alanon,”say no as a complete sentence.” Yes, I finally learned the importance of basing my “yes” or “no” on what I needed not what others might think. Important words, indeed!

    • Joan Rough says:

      Kathy, I love what you say about basing your “yes” or “no” on what you needed, not on what others think. Why does it take some of us so long to learn this?

      Hope all is going well for you and your book!


  12. You might have been speaking my life, Joan!
    Now that I am in the second half of my 60s, I am finally learning that I can say no.
    Great entry!

    • Thank you, Linda. I often ask myself why it’s taken me so long to figure this all out. But, wisdom finally comes with age and experience. Maybe we’re meant to run around like chickens with our heads cut off during youth.

  13. Joan, these two words have been a lifetime of trouble for me! Like you, I equated them with “please” and “thank you.” Now, however, I’m learning which one to use more often, “no.” I like a saying I heard in a group setting for mothers of preschoolers. “When you say yes to something, you are saying no to someone or something else.” I’ve made that my reminder to stop and think about what or who I may be saying no to when I say yes. 🙂