Refuse – such a simple concept, yet so rife with complications in execution. It makes us feel rude to reject someone’s hospitality. It breaks the flow of normal social communication. It’s very jarring, and for those of us who are used to smoothly blending into social interactions, it’s ultimately off-putting.

Recently, I was indoctrinated into my new branch at work. It was a unique experience because it was just me and Shane at what is usually a crowded meeting. We were being told the ins and outs of the city, the workplace and our jobs. Since this branch is out-of-country, we were presented with a few “gifts” at the end of the presentations. These were extremely thoughtful gifts like a water bottle, some sunscreen and a lip balm, all necessities for the climate we were moving into. There was also a plastic accordion folder, to organize the mountain of paperwork just handed to us.

The right thing to do here was refuse these gifts because I already have a few water bottles, I’m particular about what goes on my skin and face and we tend to scan and store paperwork on our computer when we can. But the thought of it just made me nervous. This was a new workplace. Although my job wasn’t at risk, I didn’t want to come across as rude or unfriendly, and I certainly didn’t want to give off the impression that I wasn’t a team player, or I didn’t appreciate their hospitality. After all, these were extremely thoughtful and relevant gifts.

Despite all this, I had made up my mind to refuse the gifts. Of course, I did not interrupt her in her presentation of them and I allowed her to finish. But when she asked us if we had questions, I politely returned both the gifts and told her: “These gifts are lovely and thoughtful. I hope you don’t mind me returning them to you as I live a minimal, plastic free life.”

She stared at me in a way that made me sweat. She wasn’t upset, but she was shocked into silence. After a brief pause, I added (perhaps only to break the silence): “I hope you don’t think I’m being rude, I just have my own water bottle and would not find use for this one.” To which she quickly responded, “Of course not, I’m sure the next family would appreciate it.”

In all this, Shane had decided to keep the plastic folder, partly because it would be useful to organize the paperwork until we got home and scanned it, and partly because it made him uncomfortable to refuse gifts. It took every ounce of my self-control not to chastise him – not just in public, but later when we had returned to our hotel room.

So, here are the two patience lessons I learned from a very short morning that had a very long five minutes towards the end:

  1. We each set our own pace for lifestyle transitions and to make meaningful strides forward, we need to respect this. Often when we live with someone else, whether it’s parents, partners or friends, we tend to project our values onto them. The people we live with are not obligated to adopt our lifestyle changes, and the onus is on us to work our lifestyle around them. Just because someone is your family and not “just” your roommate does not change that. It’s quite clear that both Shane and I struggle with refusing, but just because I refuse in certain situations, does not mean he is obligated to do so as well. Pressure and lectures only hurt our cause here. We need to be patient with each other as we find our stride.
  2. We need to get comfortable with discomfort. Often, the things we need to do in transition will not feel good but will feel necessary. Be patient with yourself until your find your stride. People will soon catch on to the different habits you have and may even choose to adopt some of them. And you will slowly learn how to best communicate with people who may not have the same values or know the problem the way you do. I learned today that three things are very important when I refuse things from people at work. I need to first appreciate them out loud for their thoughtfulness, then explain why I’m refusing the gift(s) and close with reminding them it’s not my intention to be rude or exclusive.

There you have it. Patience allows us to stay the course gracefully. While we may feel upset at our own behaviour or the behaviours of others, we don’t always need to act on every instance of being upset. Sometimes, letting go of it can be the best way forward.

Thank you for all the uncomfortable things you do to curb our plastic problem.