Why It’s Important To Say No To Free Stuff

Last week I got hoodwinked. Walking out of the school canteen, a friend and I passed a guy standing next to his car’s open trunk, handing out free drinks and note pads. Except they weren’t free. As soon as he’d offered us his ‘gifts,’ he made us sign trial subscriptions to a newspaper. To his credit, we didn’t need any payment info and he was a nice guy.

But he still blindsided us. Most of the time, however, I do it to myself.

Free Lunch All Over The Place

Whoever says there’s no free lunch has never been to a German college. We don’t pay insane tuition, yet there are still more freebies than anyone could handle. Drinks, food, events; young people will build the future and these are the things they covet. But that doesn’t mean we want our lives to be a 24/7 pitch fest in which we’re the prize.

So when yet another poor devil hands out flyers, the result is often the same: trash cans full of paper, littered floors, and shreds of parchment flying through the streets. 19 out of 20 times, 19 out of 20 people aren’t interested. And yet, we end up with an ad in our hands anyway. Why is that?

Sometimes, we get blindsided. We’re too startled to say no and boom, we agreed. Sometimes, we don’t want to be rude. And sometimes, it’s straight pity. It speaks volumes about your product if the best buyer motivation you can hope for is people wanting to eliminate some of the inherent discomfort in your sales process. A friend says she often takes flyers to make the other person feel better and help them get on with their unrewarding job.

That’s a noble goal, but I think there’s a hidden price we pay for it. Because now, the joke’s on us.

The Scales Inside Your Mind

Taking some stupid flyer doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. Now you’re not just responsible for the piece of paper, but unless you really wanted to take it, which, let’s face it, almost never happens, you’ve also just broken a previous deal with yourself: “I will do what I trust is best for me.”

This deal isn’t explicit. It’s not one we sign and one we rarely voice out loud. But it’s built into us from birth and rightfully so.

Acting in our own best interest is, on a long enough timeline, the only way to act in everyone else’s best interest also.

Deep inside your mind, there’s a scale. Every time you break or live up to that deal, you throw a small stone in one of its trays. One side is confidence — complete and utter trust in yourself. The other is insecurity. A constant scratching at your decisions, full of self-doubt and second-guessing yourself. And whichever side is heavier tends to make your next decision.

Throwing The First Stone

Also last week, I went out to grab drinks with friends one night. Around 10 PM, our metaphorical Thursday night camel train wanted to move on. There was a midterm party hosted by the school, but the group wanted to go pregame at another place first.

I fancied the party, but what I didn’t wanna do was drive all across town to sit in someone’s apartment and drink first. Especially since I’m not in the mood for alcohol these days. So I decided to go home. Of course the usual ‘come on’s and ‘just an hour’s ensued. You know how it goes, you’ve been in that situation before.

See how similar this is to the people handing out flyers? Except it’s all intensified. Because now you’ve made an actual deal with yourself and it’s not a stranger pitching, but your friends. The scale in your mind, however, remains the same. It doesn’t matter what’s reasonable or what’s fun. The only important question is:

Which tray of the scale will you throw the next stone on?

Another friend says she once met someone who’d always joke she was “a weak person” when it comes to going with the group consensus. It’s a fun anecdote when you’re actually indifferent about an outcome, but I told her I’m worried about what happens if she tells it too many times. Humans work in funny ways. The more you tell yourself you’re the type of person who throws stones on the doubt-side of the scale, the more you’ll end up actually doing it.

For 99% of our decisions, it doesn’t matter all that much, but in 1% of moments, the state of the scale is everything.

Seconds Of A Lifetime

There’s one last thing that happened last week. We were watching the Germany vs. Sweden world cup match at a burger place. For every goal Germany scored, we got free shots. I passed on the first one, because again, I don’t feel like drinking these days. But since we won in the last minute, we got another round.

Once more, I declined when the waiter offered, but as we were all about to toast, a friend noticed I didn’t have one, while another friend had ended up with two. I said it was alright and that I didn’t want it, but my buddy was adamant I take it. After a short, but suddenly intense “YES!”-“NO!”-yelling-match, he handed the shot over, I set it down and saluted with my Sprite.

Imagine how awkward that is. Twelve people with raised glasses, with two dudes arguing over who takes the last shot in the middle. Moments like these only take seconds, but unlike listening to sales pitches or deciding where to eat, they fundamentally impact who you are. And yet, the shots are just like flyers. You either cave and take the damn thing or stick to your guns and make things awkward.

No one will even remember, let alone care about the situation two weeks down the line. But you will. Because taking the shot, or the shitty job offer, or forgiving the asshole boyfriend who cheated is like ripping that trust contract you have with yourself to shreds. With a snap of your fingers, you’ve dropped an anvil on the scale. Self-doubt all the way.

What all of this comes down to in the end is this:

The reason I can say no to drinking in a room full of people with raised glasses is that I’ve practiced saying no to people with flyers for the past 10 years.

Getting ambushed by a guy selling newspaper subscriptions is bad. But blindsiding yourself is much worse. We tell ourselves these little, mundane decisions aren’t important, but they are. Because everything you do matters. Life isn’t a collection of fragments. It all ties together into who you are.

The choices you make when no one cares are the ones that determine what you’ll do when you care the most.

So, I’m sorry if you ended up with one of those crappy promotion jobs. I feel for you. But no, I don’t want your flyers.

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