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Yes Man: The Power of One Word

Can one word improve your relationships, expand your horizons and open your heart? Maybe! An intrepid reporter commits to seven days of acquiescence.

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Yes Man

It’s 4:30 in the afternoon on a godforsaken Tuesday in February at the worst McDonald’s in the world. The line is long, the floor is wet, and all I want is a small coffee. Cheeseburger after cheeseburger I wait, watching the attend­ant run from the fryer to the cash register, as I fume like the hot apple pie. My boss is probably wondering where I am, and the woman in front of me is customizing her salad like she’s at the Ritz. I take no pride in the fact that I’ve become the guy who mutters to himself. Finally, it’s my turn.

“Want to try our 20­-piece chicken McNugget Fan Pack?” asks the teenager with a nose ring who looks at me like I’m my dad. No, I don’t want to try 20 McNuggets. What am I, 12? I’m a 40­-year­-old man on deadline. I need coffee-at this point, poured straight into my eye.

“Yes,” I say, and I grimace, an expression that’s become all too fam­iliar since I started saying yes to everything three days ago.

I schlep my ridiculous chicken back to my desk with its two sodas and two medium french fries, smelling like a food court. Then I eat one: remarkable. Who needs coffee? I eat my chicken, and my chicken is good.

My name is Ben Kaplan, and I’m father to Matthew, three months old, and Esme, two and a half years. I’ve been married to Julie since 2006, and we’ve been together since 2001. I work at the National Post in Toronto and write about culture while co-­spearheading EachCoach.com, a new social network for runners. And for one week, I’ve decided to say yes to everything. 

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This experiment is about deliberately putting myself in a position of trusting others, and thus being exposed and vulnerable. As a rule, I’m a trusting person, perhaps because I can’t be bothered to do otherwise, or maybe because my luck’s been pretty good (thanks mainly to Julie’s attention to detail). Still, I’m proceeding with caution. For one, I don’t like being told what to do. Say yes to too much sushi and suddenly you realize it’s been four years since you’ve had veal Parmesan. Also, I can be passive-aggressive-until the passiveness passes and, startlingly, I’m aggressive as hell. Perhaps seven days of compliance will provide perspective on how best to live. Embarking on this project, a little nauseous, I don’t know.

Two things happen on Day 1 that make me think I’m not as much of a yes man as I claim. In fact, even when I’m saying yes, what I actually say sounds a lot more like no. At a post-church luncheon, I see the mother of an acquaintance of mine. Not a friend, exactly-at 20 years old, he is younger than some of my clothes. But he’s had some troubles and I like him, so I check in from time to time. However, when his mother pops by to thank me, I counter with, “I don’t need to be thanked.” And as she insists, I dig in. Then, during the dessert course-baklava, it’s a Greek Orthodox church-a stranger congratulates me on my new book, Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now, which, outside of Matthew and Esme, is probably my greatest achievement. Instead of saying, “Thank you, yes, that’s very kind,” I go with, “Who you should be congratulating is Julie, who does such an amazing job with our son.” I never realized how difficult I am. I don’t like giving people the upper hand. All they want is a yes, and my no is a wall. Unknowingly, I’m putting up barriers.

As the kids nap in the back seat on the drive from the service to the grocery store, Julie brings up both instances of me being if not rude, then at least weird. Saying yes is supposed to make things simpler. I’m only at church because it means so much to my in-laws, whose yes is faith, whose belief bolsters everything. My yes is cagey and contains footnotes. The first step to yes may be to recognize how often, without thinking about it, I say no.

19 things I say yes to on Super Bowl Sunday:

19. ”Can you take Matthew?”
18. ”Will you keep trying, please?”
17. ”All right, fine. Need my help?”
16. Letting Esme watch Elmobefore breakfast
15. ”Waffle!”
14. Letting Esme watch Elmowhile she eats breakfast
13. Esme taking her socks off atthe YMCA
12. Myself, on a run, deciding I have time to go out to the bridge
11. An interview at my home
10. Breaking from the interviewto clean up the spaghetti sauce Esme spills
9. A beer during the big game
8. And another
7. And another
6. “Can you put Esme to bed?”
5. “One more story, Daddy?”
4. And another
3. “One more?”
2. “One more?”
1. ”Okay, it’s probably enough. Why don’t you call it a night?” 

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The days of the newspaperman seem numbered; I know this because my workweek begins with going-away parties for two well-regarded National Post colleagues. To counter, I work at a splinter cell called PostMedia Labs, where I manage a running micro-community. For an entertainment reporter, this management-engagement tracking and targeted emails-is a greater challenge than tallying the travails of Justin Bieber. I flounder. I’m slow in Excel, and my hands have been known to shake when I have to present my numbers. I want to call the shots. I just don’t know what they are: today, saying yes detaches me from my pride.

Should we offer our members Clif Bars, ask my colleagues? Yes. Should we try A/B testing and send half of the community Clif Bars and promise the other half newspaper blurbs? Yes. Should we leave the segment that hasn’t responded alone? Yes, yes and yes. Yes to everything.

Far from making me feel vulnerable, the word protects me. Stoking engagement is hard, and yet I sometimes disagree in these meetings because I think it makes me seem bold. But what has that achieved? Rumpled feathers and alienation. Besides, I like these guys. I respect them. If they wanted 800 words on Miley Cyrus and twerking, I’d like to think they’d ask me.

Saying yes is like that bonding exercise where you fall backwards into (you hope) waiting arms. Yes means “I trust you.” Yes means “You’re right.” It means I’m putting my lot in with your judgment, so it also means I think you have value. Don’t think yes is powerful? Try it when the question you’re answering is to stand by someone for the rest of your life, through sickness and health. No is an anchor with a predetermined outcome. With yes, who knows? Yes also has consequences. Say yes to a blackjack dealer, and there’s no taking it back if you bust. 

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Yes Man

I don’t trust advertising, politicians or the people who come to my door with clipboards and ask to look at my water tank. If you want something from me, I don’t trust you. This isn’t a rule. It’s a code. That’s why Thursday morning fills me with trepidation: I do not trust my bank. Rather, I don’t understand it. I can’t keep RRSP, RESP, GIC and TFSA straight, let alone the terms of my mortgage. So when faced with an adult decision, I usually look at the banker, then at Julie, and say, “Yes?” Recognizing this handicap, I hired an outside adviser. Thursday morning I ask a manager at Scotiabank to look over my finances. 

“I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of your outside adviser,” he says. “But I can tell you that Scotiabank made $6.6 billion last year.”

The guy’s a shark, 26 years old, has an office. I’m bald and covering the Juno Awards. He takes money from my chequing account and spreads it across an alphabet soup of investments. Late to work, my yes is solely about moving me, like my money, from point A to point B. He could’ve sold me the Champlain Bridge.

On Friday, the seventh day, I rest. Blindly jumping from windows and trusting there will be a safe place to land is tiring. Done catching, I want to pitch. My daughter’s daycare is chaos: 17 toddlers, parents with jobs to get to, lots of tears. I corner a mother in transit: Want to arrange a play date for Sunday afternoon? In a flourish of bravado, I also tell the educator to add me to the weekly parents’ email. I’m ready to instigate stuff! I head to the office and throw out a new idea at the staff meeting, which would somehow turn EachCoach into a game. I lack the vocabulary to properly engage my new partners, but at least I say my piece. Later, Julie calls to tell me she’ll pick up Esme and take her to spend the night with my in-laws, no less. When I ask if we can have veal Parmesan for dinner, she surprises me: yes!

You can’t win life by standing on the side of the road and hoping a truck will drive by and drop happiness off at your feet. But you also can’t scream no at everything the way my daughter does, perpetually swinging your sword. Safety lies in a combination of caution and trust. No puts your guard up. Yes, issued correctly, opens your arms. After seven days of yesses, what did I learn? It’s probably best to split the difference. The most honest three words: I don’t know.