It’s a phrase we use nowadays that has its roots in history. ‘I feel like I’m being press ganged into it.’ The ‘it’ could be attending an event, taking on extra work… but it’s usually something you don’t want to do, and you feel forced into it.
THE MEANING OF PRESS GANG
The term ‘impressment’ refers to the way people are taken into an army by force. For example, the British Royal Navy, in its heyday, became so powerful partly because it was allowed to force men with seafaring skills onto its ships. In this way, British colonial influence and wealth was reinforced by the practice of forcibly enlisting skilled individuals to do its most punishing work.
WHAT ARE YOUR SKILLS?
So if you feel press ganged into something, the chances are that you have a skill which others require for their purposes. It may be your social skills; others might see you are able to help them have a good time, and therefore enlist you to join them on their exploits. It may be your working skills; commercially, others might see that they can save money if they enlist you to do work for them at a knock-down price.
Whatever the case, it is probable that someone wants you for something you can do for them. Otherwise, why are they bothering to enlist you?
WHAT IS THE FORCE?
Back in the powerful days of the British Navy, impressment was often backed by the law. Even though it went against many people’s idea of human freedom, it was considered institutionally necessary to allow the Navy to override individuals’ wishes.
Nowadays, external forces supposedly have fewer overt calls on our freedom. And yet we can sometimes feel strangely ‘forced’ to do things against our will.
Here are a few of the elements of persuasion which you might experience as a kind of ‘force’, together with some skills you might find useful to combat them:
1. Speed – sometimes the conversation is so fast, you don’t have time to think for yourself and say no. Maybe develop the habit of pausing before you say yes to anything; have a stock phrase such as ‘I’ll have to check’ ready on your lips.
2. Your own sense of duty – sometimes, a situation triggers your own sense of duty or values. You might have grown up following rules like ‘Don’t let people down.’ But if this is making you miserable, it may be time to fight back a little. Try developing some counter-values based on self-care. Your phrase to others need only be ‘I need to attend to some things’. But your self-talk might be something like ‘I need to be strong for what I value.’ As Stephen Covey one said, the best way to say no is to have a stronger yes burning inside.
3. Social force versus you-force – social forces can be very powerful. We humans are very good at ganging up to put others under pressure. You may feel forced to behave a certain way because you are sensitive to prevailing social rules. But what use is that, if it stops you speaking and acting well? A good way of countering social forces is to create some social havens of your own. In Buddhism, this is why ‘sangha’ (community) is considered so important – a safe environment for protection from the world. Choose your supportive community wisely.
TO AVOID FEELING PRESS GANGED
You will resent others if you allow yourself to become the victim of their wishes. By all means give others gifts and serve them – that’s a different thing. When you give consistently with your values, your actions flow and feel what I call ‘felicitous’ – everything just works. But when you feel forced to give, ask yourself whose battle you are being asked to fight.
Impressment, in the old days, was literally being forced to fight other people’s battles for them. In those days it was the British monarchy or government. Nowadays, it could be:
1. The quests and activities of friends (‘You are invited to…’)
2. Political enlistment by blackmail (‘If you’re not for us you’re against us!’)
3. Requisition of your skills and abilities (‘Just a moment of your time…’)
There’s a great phrase doing the rounds these days: ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys.’ It adds humour to the important idea that we can choose our battles, that we are not subject to impressment, that we cannot be press ganged.
Develop your own phrases for use when you are press ganged by others. Useful ones include ‘I need to think about that and get back to you’; ‘I’ve got some things to attend to’; or even, horror of horrors, ‘I’m saying no to that one’. You don’t have to give detailed reasons. If someone tried to make you join the Navy nowadays, would you really feel the need to give them a detailed thesis about UK political aims in the world and their consistency or otherwise with your own plans? A simple ‘No thanks’ would suffice.
Maybe, for a day, practice exercising preferences in communication. You can only build up your language in a sphere if you practice it. You may find yourself getting better at saying no, simply because you have developed more ways to say no. And don’t forget, you are not really saying no to requests, but yes to things you believe in more strongly. Good luck.
In the past, impressment was used to force individuals to join the British Navy against their own will. These days, it is less likely that you will be forced to fight others’ battles. But people will put you under social pressure to give them your time and skills. Genuinely give if you wish. But insincere giving will make you resent them and yourself. Better to develop a clear language of ‘no’, so that when the time comes, you can protect yourself socially, and give yourself the time you need to live well.