Born and bred in Russia, I've spent the last 15 years in the UK, learning the British way. Brits pride themselves in being subtle, they'd rather beat around the bush, than give you a direct answer and regard straight feedback as a crime only a simple bumpkin or a vulgar foreigner would commit. By the same token, this "vulgar foreigner" and my fellow overseas partners in crime (especially Dutch, Swedes and New Yorkers) have been suffering from what we identify as British indecisiveness, elusiveness and ambiguity. Interpreting British feedback is a craft which takes years to perfect, not that I am under any illusion that I'd ever master it. Asking a British friend for feedback is akin to pulling teeth, and the feeling is mutual because a friend dreads having to commit to an answer as much as I detest attempting to pull it out. At best, you get hint. At worst, you get nothing at all.
This is why I did a little dance when I had got my first rejection. It was a milestone, something concrete, something to benchmark against and improve on. Rejection is something we are all conventionally afraid of, but I find it genuinely helpful. After the first sting (which, with practice, needn't hurt at all), "No" is but a useful data point, which adds to the learning experience. I've now published six articles with the New Statesman, but a couple of ideas I submitted had been rejected by the editor. It helped me to understand what works and what does not and how to develop my own angle. What's more, a rejection inevitably spurs me on to come back with a new, better idea.
There are countless examples of great writers receiving rejections from publishers before becoming bestsellers, entrepreneurs quitting jobs to start their own businesses after their ideas had been rejected by superiors in corporate jobs and TV shows becoming hits after umpteen pitches and tweaks. Walt Disney was famously fired from the Kansas City Star in 1919 because, his editor said, he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
What I find is infinitely worse than rejection is no response at all. Imagine sending a proposal to a client or your boss or potential business partner and then waiting for feedback, while getting increasingly anxious. "Was my proposal so awful that it does not even merit a response?" "I wish I just got a straight "No", so I can get in touch with another potential partner." "Is it me, or does my boss simply have too much on her plate right now and my timing was off?" I bet it sounds familiar. The less confident of us would always take silence as negative feedback, even if, in all likelihood, circumstances got in the way.
I am particularly impatient with modern dating practices. Hands up who has dared to communicate "I'm just not into you" in a delicate but honest way? Most people seem to prefer communicating with silence or worse. Dating apps like Tinder make finding potential mates so easy that it has become common practice among men (women too?) to arrange dates and then disappear. When I asked a 40-year-old Tom about our Saturday afternoon date which hadn't taken place, he replied a few hours later with "I'm so sorry, I am with my mother in Aberdeen!". I felt guilty for about 10 seconds, before realising that, according to Tinder's location function, Tom was 5km away. When I mentioned the episode to my friends, I found out that too many of other women I know had been subjected to the same silent treatment.
I'd trade a vague promise for a clear cut rejection any day. "I don't want anyone who does not want me", said Oprah Winfrey and I agree. I want to give my best, so if my editor feels I could do better, I want to know that. I want any professional relationship to be mutually beneficial, so it pays to find a match that is just right. I don't want to waste time on subtleties where honesty would be much more worthy. If I ever ask you for an opinion, do me a favour and serve it straight up.