Persistence versus Annoyance – The Thin Line
When it comes to achieving goals, persistence is often the key to success. Parable and proverb say that perseverance and dedication are as (if not more) important than skill or knowledge when it comes to accomplishing a task. The little engine that could, the tortoise that beat the hare, Aesop’s stork with pebbles – examples of determination overcoming any adversity abound throughout modern and historic culture, and across the globe.
Certainly, persistence is a very good thing – at least until it’s not.
Just ask anyone who’s had their meal interrupted by a telemarketer who begs for “just a moment”, been hounded across a car lot by a persistent salesman, or turned down an adamant admirer who just can’t seem to take “Bug Off” for an answer.
Persistence is great, but being too dogged in your pursuit of your goals can make you come across as self-centered and rude. In some situations, this may be a perception you’re willing to accept, for the sake of accomplishing your goal. But in others, especially in interpersonal situations, this may not only be an undesired side effect – it may actually prevent you from accomplishing your goal altogether.
Where then, is the line between being persistent enough to achieve your goals and being so pushy, unrelenting or assertive that you shoot yourself in the foot and ensure that you will never accomplish them? I believe the key, especially in interpersonal situations, is in being aware of your circumstances and having empathy for those you’re interacting with.
When determining how persistent an approach is appropriate for a social situation, first consider your basic social rights, and the rights of those you’re interacting with to accomplish your goal.
In almost any social situation, you have the right to politely and calmly express your wishes and desires in a manner that is appropriate for the circumstances. However, when presented with your social goals (whether they involve a conversation, a date, or a better seat on the train) others have the right to demure (politely refuse) without being made to feel uncomfortable about the situation.
This is a basic shallow-level social contract, between two people who don’t know each other well or who have no real social obligations to one another – casual acquaintances, passing friends, co-workers who haven’t made the transition to “friend”, or others who you haven’t built an in-depth relationship with. (This includes friends-of-friends, celebrities (large and small) and people who you’ve spoken to on the internet – For a wonderful article on the differences between On Line and In Person Acquaintances, check out Monica Valentinelli’s essay – “Bridging the Online to Offline Connection“.) Increased depth to the situation may make it acceptable to ask for larger favors or to ask more often, but it does not in any way change the fact that in social situations, if we insist on impressing our needs and desires on unwilling participants, we’re running the risk of coming across as selfish and impolite.
The Rule of Three
While it’s easy to say “If they say no, it’s rude to persist” quite often the situation is just not that simple. For the sake of perceived politeness, many times responses will not be so clear cut. An invitation may be responded to with statements like: “I’d love to, but…” or “I’m sorry, I’m busy that day. Maybe next time?” Even more conflicted are situations where an invitation or request is responded to positively, and then dropped or simply not followed through with.
While there are definitely situations where stronger follow up is warranted (work, established relationships, etc.) my basic guideline for social interactions is something I call “The Rule of Three”. When making a request or invitation, I will usually ask no more than three times before I assume that the person involved is simply not interested.
If, for example, I want to hang out more with a new friend, I might make an invitation for them to come over for dinner. If they are busy, I may make two more invitations. After that, the ball is in their proverbial court, and I wait for them to suggest a get-together. If they’re interested in socializing with me (and have the time and resources to do so) then I’m more than willing to do so… but I don’t spend months trying to chase them down for a dinner or game night. At a certain point, you have to accept that they may just not be interested, not have the time, or not be willing to prioritize spending time with you.
That being said – I believe it’s also important to pay attention to the circumstances of the responses too. If I invite someone over for dinner, and they say they always eat dinner with their family, or that they always work until after 8pm, then chances are my invitation for another dinner together is likely to be refused. In a case like this, where an explanation is given, it makes sense to take the offered information into consideration when making a second invite.
Actions Speak Louder…
Sometimes, more can be read in the actions and body language of the people we’re interacting with than in their spoken words. A quasi-acceptance that’s accompanied by negative or non-attentive body language (turning away, eyes and attention focused elsewhere, closed or folded arms, or hands in pockets) may well mean that the person is trying unsuccessfully to say no.
Likewise, if they agree initially, but cancel once they’re out of your presence (repeatedly, or with unlikely or avoidable excuses), chances are they don’t feel comfortable demurring in person, and are waiting for the emotional safety of distance in order to turn down the invitation.
In short – yes, if you want something, you should (politely, and in a manner that is appropriate for the situation) request it. However, if you are told “No”, to blindly keep asking for the same or similar things is likely going to result in the other party perceiving you as annoying, rather than persistent in any positive fashion.