December 13, 2007

Not taking "no" for an answer

It's common for us to be rewarded when we agree or say "yes" to people. Parents want to hear it, teachers expect it, and police demand it. At about 18 months children begin to be fluent in saying "no" but they have to unlearn this when they get to school, where compliance seems to be the norm. This newly developed compliance can then get kids in trouble with their high school peers when they don't say "no" to drugs, alcohol, and other unnamed things. This Washington Post article takes it from there.

It's all well and  good to learn to say "no." But it's often what happens after you say "no" that matters. Some people just  won't take "no" for an answer. Used car salespersons leap to mind, as do many marriage partners (please understand that I'm not speaking from personal experience here; my wife is a marriage therapist who tells me stuff like this). I describe the conversational strategy of not taking "no" for an answer in my book, Creating Language Crimes (Oxford U Press 2006), citing cases where it was used by undercover officers and cooperating witnesses who tape-recorded suspects in sting operations.

One of the most blatant examples of the police not taking "no" for an answer can be found in the FBI's famous Abscam operation some three decades ago. A conversation between New Jersey's US Senator Harrison A. Williams and an agent posing as a sheik from the United Arab Emirates was recorded and later used as evidence that the senator was willing to take a bribe--a quid pro quo.

The quo part of the alleged quid pro quo was to get the senator to personally agree to sponsor legislation that would permit the sheik to get permanent legal residence in the US. Despite the sheik's efforts, this never happened. On tape the senator says only that he is willing to help the sheik do the things that would bring the sheik's request to proper consideration through the prescribed legal channels. Williams carefully explains that the sheik has to meet the legal criteria, that this is not easy to do, that it must go through a committee, and that both bodies of congress would have to pass a bill for this ever to happen. He concludes saying, "Quite frankly, I personally can't issue that. It goes through the whole dignified process of passing a law."

The quid part of the agent's plan was for the sheik to offer the senator $25,000 for his services in this effort. Undaunted by William's careful (and quite proper) description of the whole process involved, the sheik goes merrily on to represent the quid, what the senator would get in exchange. Here's the actual text of the most crucial part of that conversation:

Sheik: (with cash in his hand) I will, for your help, uh, assistance, I would like to give you some money for, for permanent residence.
Williams: No. No. No. No, when I work in that kind of activity, it is purely a public, not, uh. No, within my position, when I deal with law and legislation, it's not within my--(telephone rings, interrupting, but Williams continues)--My only interest is to see this come together.

Senator Williams said "no" to the money at least five times, but to no avail. And he never took a cent. Like a used car salesperson, the agent ignored the "no" just as though Williams had actually agreed to personally sponsor a bill for him. The evidence on the tape didn't seem to matter to the agent nor to the prosecutor who brought the charges, nor, for that matter, to the jury that eventually convicted Williams of bribery. Saying "no" doesn't always convince law enforcement about a target's unwillingness to agree with the scenario they had in mind.

The Post's explanation of how hard it is to say "no" is only part of the story. It's often what happens after you say "no" that really matters.

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 13, 2007 11:07 AM