“Yes and…” vs. “Um, no…”

by Gil Hova

I’ve never been much into religion, partially because I don’t think the universe can be sliced up into two neat groups of Good and Evil. The idea of taking something as complex and real as a person’s life, intertwined as they all are with loves, hates, mistakes, and regrets, and somehow judging that he or she belongs in Heaven or Hell is something that sets off my bullshit detector.

Nevertheless, I do like seeing interesting dichotomies, especially ones that are more interesting and that ring more true than the old, banal Good versus Evil. One that’s been on my mind is the difference between “Yes and…” and “Um, no…”

Let’s start with “Um, no…” because it’s what a lot of people are familiar with. You see it a lot on internet forums. One person will say something, and another person replies, “Um, no…” and refutes his point. Sometimes it’s good feedback. But very often, it’s anything from arrogant, reactionary burbling to pedantic grammar corrections.

You may not be as familiar with “Yes and…” It’s one of the first rules of improv comedy. If your improv partner comes up with an idea, you never shoot it down mid-performance. You take it and you build on it. Improv is all about construction, building, and progress. Destruction, contradiction, and regression kill improv.

So if we’re doing an improv scene, and you turn into a dinosaur, “Yes and…” suggests that I not say “That’s stupid,” and immediately turn you back, let alone breaking character to ask to start again. I can turn into a dinosaur myself, or a horseshoe crab, or a mammoth, or something that builds on your scene.

From here, it’s easy to pull these actions into a bigger paradigm. “Yes and…” and “Um, no…” are metaphors for common worldviews. When you read something new, or come across something you haven’t seen before, do you reject it? Do you pull it into your life?

Now, it’s easy to infer that we as a people (and especially those of us who post persnickety comments on forums and blogs) could use a lot less “Um, no…” and a lot more “Yes, and…” For the most part, that’s true. But like any other dichotomy, it’s all about balance. “Um, no…” is a vital skill in life.

Sometimes we have to call bullshit. Your friend who insists on staying together with her abusive lover needs to say, “Um, no…” Your relative who’s starting an asinine and clearly doomed business venture with a pushy, shady partner needs to say, “Um, no…” Anyone who’s lived a little can tell you that “Yes” can be an incredibly destructive word.

My recent life changes have got me thinking a lot about this dichotomy, and where I need to be. There are some people to whom I’ve said “Yes and…” too many times, and others to whom I’ve said “Um, no…” too many times.

I’m trying to fix this. I’m going out weeknights now, seeing friends and catching up. I’m also trying to be more forthright, telling people my honest opinions, even if it’s awkward and difficult.

“Yes and…” versus “Um, no…” Where do you fit in?