Mr Collins, Mr Key and refusing to hear “No”

Jane Austen wrote a classic scene in Jane_Austen_coloured_versionPride and Prejudice in which a man simply refused to hear the word, “No.” Mr Collins, a bumbling obtuse and really somewhat repulsive clergyman was determined to make an offer of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet, and no matter how many stratagems she employed to make her refusal as obvious as possible, he simply refused to take her at her word.

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal…”

Yet he carries on, and on, and will not hear her, and insists that he will get her father to intervene on his behalf, to force her into an acceptance. Fortunately for Elizabeth, she knows that her father despises Mr Collins, so she will be safe. But it’s hard to imagine exactly how she could have prevailed against Mr Collins otherwise, given his complete unwillingness to take her plain words seriously.

It’s a comic scene, and the reader knows that Elizabeth will never end up married to Mr Collins. But think of the dynamic in a different context, where a woman’s refusal, communicated in all sorts of ways, is simply not heard. Think of it in the context of harassment, of pony tail pulling, of sexual harassment, and in too many cases, sexual assault.

What we have seen recently in the case of the waitress and the Prime Minister is a man who simply refused to hear no.

Amanda Bailley says that she repeatedly communicated a refusal to the Prime Minister. She used body language, approaches to his staff, social media comments, and a direct “No!” And he still carried on.

Mr Key has defended his actions by saying that it was just a misunderstanding, and as soon as he realised that she was unhappy about it, he stopped. It was all just a miscommunication.

Sure… whatever.

“She should have just said no” or, “I’d have stopped if she’d said no” are standard defences used by people who harass other people, sexually harass other people, and sexually assault other people. But in an extended analysis of how conversation works in the real world, Kitzinger and Frith (1999) find that:
– both men and women find ways to soften the word, “No”, because that’s the politeness convention in our society
– it is socially aberrant to explicitly say no
– both men and women understand that that’s how conversation works
– both men and women have the ability to understand all the verbal and non-verbal signals that are used to convey “No”.

Based on this analysis, they argue that:

male claims not to have ‘understood’ refusals which conform to culturally normative patterns can only be heard as self-interested justifications for coercive behaviour.

There is an extensive write-up of Kitzinger and Frith (1999) on the Yes Means Yes website. I recommend it. I especially recommend reading the conversational examples, where “No” is clearly communicated, even when the word itself is not used.

Think again about what the Prime Minister is saying.

Prime Minister John Key has dismissed his hair-pulling pranks as “a bit of banter”, saying he apologised to an Auckland waitress when it became clear his approaches were unwanted.

To be clear, what it took for it to become clear to the Prime Minister is repeated attempts by the waitress to communicate with him, including direct messages to his staff and an explicit “No!” And yet he carried on.

Put that in the context of what we know about how conversations ordinarily work, and what we know about men’s and women’s capacity to understand all the non-verbal and verbal signals we use to communicate “No.”

Either Mr Key is as obtuse and bumbling as Mr Collins, or he’s making a very flimsy excuse for his on-going harassment of a waitress.

This entry was posted in Feminism, NZ Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mr Collins, Mr Key and refusing to hear “No”

  1. Gordon says:

    I wanted to mention something about this that twitter has thus far not reported.

    On the day this story broke, I watched all three evening new shows’ (Prime, One & 3) coverage of it. One of Key’s comments made the cut for the Prime story, but not for the other two. Asked why he continued to pull her hair after she’d asked him to stop, Key replied that “I thought she was joking”. Make of that what you will.

  2. Pingback: Deborah Russell on Jane Austen, rape culture and John Key | Boots Theory

  3. puddleglum12 says:

    Excellent post Deborah.

    I particularly liked your focus on how language works. It’s not some string of letters that encode meaning. It’s a lived action that is woven into and supported by all the social norms and interpersonal processes that all our other actions are reliant on.

    It’s a testimony to how far Amanda had been pushed – and how far Key had ignored all the usual conventions – that she ended up having to be so repeatedly explicit about the ‘No!’

    That Key claims he didn’t realise is itself the real joke – his ‘little’ joke on all of us, but most especially on Amanda.

  4. Not to mention that when women do say a direct “No”, they risk censure, ridicule or even abuse for doing so. How many of us have been called a “Rude b****” (or worse) in response to a clear “No”?

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