Stacy L. Young rejects the idea that we know all there is to know about rejection.
This Communication Studies faculty member is an expert on hurtful communication who has followed her research into the many ways people communicate and respond to relational rejection.
Although there are many ways to convey rejection, “My research leads me to conclude it doesn’t matter how you say it – in other words, the wrapping paper may be nice on the outside, but in the end what is inside the package is still the same. However, what your relationship is to the person at the time of the rejection can make a big difference. The closer you are to the rejector, the less likely you are to believe in it,” she said.
That poses a problem for the person who is trying to fend off unwanted relational advances. The other person continues to pursue because they cannot take the rejection seriously. If they were to approach a stranger with the desire to pursue a relationship and the stranger says, “Leave me alone,” they would accept that. But if they pursue a friend or someone they already have some level of connection to, when that person resists, the tendency is for them to just keep on trying. As a society, we tend to sympathize with the plight of the valentine.
“What tends to happen to a would-be lover is an inability to see things as they are,” she explained. “People tend to read into relationships whatever worldview they possess. For instance, my niece has a crush on a boy at her school. He asked her to sit by him. For her, just like with us all, we are searching for clues and it is easy to think that other’s actions mean something, when maybe they do and maybe they don’t.”
Rejection takes many forms. Sometimes it is as simple as avoiding a phone call or e-mail. Sometimes there is rudeness involved. “Look at such classic lines as, ‘It’s not you; it’s me,’” she said. “The media keeps telling us not to give up and to keep on trucking. Love conquers all. But there is no graceful way to exit a relationship.”
Rejection cuts across ages. “It is not just a young person’s problem,” she explained. “We are socialized to frame rejection differently as we get older. We put rejection into such contexts as, ‘it didn’t hurt me; it made me mad!’ Younger people feel hurt. Anger becomes a more common response to rejection as we age.”
The times we live in shade our judgment of how we interpret rejection. “Nowadays, we still have a strong emphasis on being a couple,” she said. “People pursue a relationship even when there is no evidence a relationship is possible or even desirable. Rejection is not as dramatic as it was during the Elizabethan period and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ But even in the 21st century, there is a strong push to be a couple.”
With cell phones and e-mail and faxes, there are more ways than ever to dump someone. “Look at the popular TV commercial that features a young woman deleting ex-lovers from her cell,” she said. “With such new developments as online dating, we are forced to be more direct in our rejection. Up to now, we have relied on verbal or written modes of communication. Now we have text messages. There are not only more ways to connect, there are more ways to disconnect.”
American culture prefers direct expression but not all cultures feel that way. “Other cultures do not privilege straight forward communication,” she said. “Even though we say we prefer direct expression, we don’t. We avoid and hope the problem goes away. Nothing is more painful for people than sitting down with another person and telling them you don’t like them.”
Young earned two bachelor’s degrees from USC, one in French and one in communication studies. She later received her master’s from San Diego State and her Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 2000, the year she joined CSULB.
Knowing what she does about rejection sensitizes her. “When I overhear a rejection in a restaurant, I resist the impulse to get involved. I have definitely thought, ‘Oh, you’re not handling this well.’ My students think I must be very effective but I’m not always. I just know when I’m doing it wrong,” she laughed.
Young’s advice is that we all need to learn to be better listeners if we’re going to deal with rejection. “Getting the perspective of another person can help too. Rather than retreating into denial, ask: What underlies the message? Why is it said and why said now? If you view rejection as a question rather than an answer, you’ll be better off. But it is important not to dwell on rejection, because that is very unhealthy. The key is to see what you can learn from the experience and then move on – but you have to do both: learn so it is productive and move on so it is constructive.”