Here’s how to say no and still be a kind person

This is a story about the difference between kindness and submissiveness, and learning the hard way how to say no.

“Okay, I trust you”

My wife flew out of town not long ago for a conference, and I drove to the airport to pick her up on the night she was due back. I arrived early and parked. I wanted to make it easier for her to spot me when she left the concourse, so I got out of the car and propped myself against the passenger side.

While I was waiting, a tan, graying man in his forties approached me and introduced himself. The first words out of his mouth after hello and his name, Casey, involved being the military. He said he and two friends had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and they were trying to drive a rental van to Virginia. Unfortunately, he said, one of them had locked their keys in the van. They called a locksmith, who quoted them $120 to unlock it. Wouldn’t you know it?—they could only pull together $109 in cash from their pockets.

I looked like a nice guy, he said, and he hated to bother me, but could I spare $11? They’d been on a long trip and it was late.

I recently discovered that panhandlers frequent Baltimore's Thurgood Marshall Airport at night.
Panhandlers apparently frequent Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall Airport at night. (Source)

The best panhandlers are convincing storytellers, but one tell is when their stories involve directions to the nearest ATM. Casey, for instance, somehow knew where one was despite having just “arrived”. I obviously should have said no, right?

I have to confess that something about the situation took me off-guard, and I gave him the $11.

“Okay, I trust you,” I told him, because sometimes I lie, too. He thanked me, gave me a hug, and walked away. After that, my wife arrived and the two of us drove home. She saw the end of what happened and was a little creeped out, but all I could do was shrug it off.

Why did I give in to Casey when I didn’t believe him? It’s because avoiding confrontation was worth more to me than what I had in my wallet. How I acted bothered me for a bit, but here’s what I’ve realized:

I was not being truly kind by giving this stranger what he wanted. I was being submissive.

What does it mean to be kind?

In many ways, your personal identity is a product of the choices you have made—how you’ve responded to the events in your life. Each key word you would use to describe yourself represents memories of your actions from in the past. For example, if you have a history of putting in long hours day after day, you might think of yourself as a hard worker. If you’ve often been early to appointments, you might think of yourself as punctual. Word associations like these can be the basis for pride or for guilt, depending on context. Of course, other factors like social and environmental influences are mixed in there, too.

There are lots of words associated with showing care or concern for other people: compassion, altruism, generosity, and love are a few. All are based on the concept of unconditional worth, in which everyone is seen as having a sense of importance simply because they are people.

No matter what a person has or has not done, unconditional worth suggests that they have value and are worthy of respect.

Generally speaking, kindness refers to having a disposition that recognizes unconditional worth in others. You still choose whether or not to honor it in each person you meet, and like anything else, your intentions are subject to interpretation. You may think you’ve been kind by doing something for someone, but they may not see it that way.

Likewise, another person may seek you out because they suspect you’ll respond to them positively. If you grant a request of theirs without knowing if the need is genuine or not, where does that leave you? That’s where the psychological dimension of kindness comes in.

You don’t have to be a pushover to be kind

What I learned from my experience at the airport is that true kindness has to be a two-way street, with benefits to both parties in the exchange. Giving without receiving is fine as long as the needs on both sides are honest and you feel in control of your actions. On the other hand, if you sense the other side has an advantage over you and you’re responding more to that than to what you want, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Moral transactions sometimes require compromise. Casey may have thought I was kind (or a sucker) for handing him cash, but I drove home feeling like I had been taken advantage of. If I had a do-over, I would have given him $1 instead of the $11 he asked for. He would have probably pleaded for more, but that would have been $1 more than he had when he approached me. I would have felt satisfied in doing my part, and how he felt would have been out of my control.

The next time someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, stop and remember that you have the power to say no (assuming your physical safety is not at risk).

You also have the power to compromise rather than giving in entirely. I’m proud of you for wanting to be a kinder person, but you don’t have to be a pushover to help people—don’t ever forget that.

Having a grounded concept of who you are as a person can help you protect your own unconditional worth. If you’re interested, you can find tips in my conversation with psychotherapist Yisroel Roll.