The Bartleby Approach

One day, when the narrator asks Bartleby to help proofread a copied document, Bartleby answers simply, “I would prefer not to.” It is the first of Bartleby’s many refusals. To the dismay of the narrator and the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby performs fewer and fewer duties around the office. The narrator makes several attempts to reason with Bartleby and learn about him, but Bartleby always responds the same way when asked to do a task or give out information about himself: “I would prefer not to.” (from Wikipedia, on Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”)

A liberal Mormon friend mentioned to me awhile ago that he’s taken up the Bartleby approach to church. When asked to do things that he finds discomfiting or morally repugnant, he simply replies “I prefer not to.”

I’ve thought about this a lot since our conversation. It seems to me that the Bartleby approach can deflect a lot of tension. One doesn’t have to say, “No, I will not install that pro-Prop 8 sign in my yard because I support gay marriage.” One can simply say, “I prefer not to.” This can, perhaps, work far better than a confrontation. The speaker doesn’t have to explain why they won’t participate, just that they “prefer not to.”

Can you think of ways that you might implement this strategy in a church setting? What might be the limitations of the Bartleby approach? How might it be helpful?

Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is


  1. Ah, the Bartleby approach. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it could be a good way to avoid conflict and explanations. It could be a way to remove yourself from some emotional angst which comes when you try to explain yourself to people who probably wouldn’t understand.

    But on the other hand, the more people do try to explain themselves and how their decisions are based on moral principles seems to me to be a good thing. The Bartleby approach protects the speaker. A non-Bartleby approach of explaining exactly why a person won’t do something leaves the speaker vulnerable, but it also has the potential of helping two disparate parties understand one another and grow.

  2. I have a problem with this approach even though I do it myself. I wish there could be more honesty and understanding among members. I wish their was a little less judgment and a willingness to hear someone out even if you don’t understand or agree with them.

    My husband has stopped going to church and this has become my approach because when I try to explain I can tell people really don’t care or have their own unmovable opinions on the matter.(Which makes me wonder why they even ask me about it)

    On accepting certain callings or doing certain activities etc. I do the same thing where I don’t give the whys.

    So though I wish it could be like Caroline has mentioned above I understand why sometime or most of the time the littler said the best.

  3. I think this is a great first step for someone like myself who would like to speak up more in Church to voice my opinions. Ideally, once I get comfortable with that, I could move on to the non-Bartleby approach.

    Or, I could just use the excuse I favored as a teenager after I had a colectomy, “I can’t. I don’t have a colon.” Used that for everything I didn’t want to do even (and especially) when not having a colon didn’t really matter.

  4. A member of the church who supports gay
    marriage is ultimately faced with a choice
    among three alternatives.

    1) Support gay marriage.
    2) Keep full faith and fellowship with the church
    3) Keep personal integrity.

    The iron reality is that one may choose two
    at most. The advantage, and limitation of the
    Bartleby strategy is that it may delay an open
    public confrontation over it.

  5. Emily, I love it. I used a bum knee excuse for many things, so I identify with you. Although I think the colon one probably packed more punch. 🙂

    I have often used the Bartleby approach in my life. I find it useful with telemarketers or other people trying to sell me things because it finishes the conversation. In church I often felt obligated to explain myself far beyond what I really needed to, so the Bartleby approach has been useful to help me draw some boundaries and not overshare.

    In my final analysis, it’s a good tool to have, but only one among many.

  6. The Bartleby approach reminds me of the quotation from Henry Ford that my mom had stuck to our refrigerator door nearly the whole time I was growing up. Some families have scriptures, we had this (and a couple of others). It was almost a family motto:

    Never complain, never explain.

    It doesn’t work in all cases, but it is a great starting point because it reinforces the impulse simply to shut up, always a healthy place from which to begin.

  7. yep, I like the “I’d prefer not to” response.

    however, I would like to avoid Bartleby’s end, as detailed in this tale.
    In which case, the aspect of declining participation in one thing must be replaced by participation in another; However quietly and non-confrontationally it needs to be.

  8. This might have been a better route for me to take the day the bishop asked me to participate in yet another boneheaded program the stake was trying to implement to compensate for poor HT & VT numbers.

    My response was along the lines of: You and the stake prez may be entitled to revelation but the Lord’s going to need to give me a sign on this one because it’s redundant. No, I will not participate. Don’t create more work. We have enough to do. Fix the programs already in place.

    Bartleby may have been a softer approach. :^/

  9. It seems to that the appropriate approach depends on your intent. If your sole intent is to not fill the request, a simple, “No,” in whatever form, is sufficient. However, as Caroline suggests, sometimes we have multiple intents – to open a dialogue, to illuminate a different perspective, to gain more information from the other person, or more often than not, to get the requester to agree with our point of view. In these cases, the Bartleby approach may not be enough.

  10. I wish that in the church we could just be honest.

    “No, I can’t take that calling because it interferes with my ‘me’ time. ”

    “No, I will not be teaming up with Sister So and So to visit the less active in our ward. She treats me like dirt, something to scrap off the bottom of her shoe. The less active probably don’t want to see her either.”

    “You want me to be the Nursery leader?! Are you crazy? How many little children do you count in my home right now? Enough said. ”

    “No, I will not speak in church on Sunday. 1) you didn’t give enough notice and 2)
    the topic is somewhat boring since we have heard three different versions of it in the last five months.”

    Sigh. Since many in the church are not ready for such direct honesty, the Bartleby approach will do. It seems to be the least offensive to those who hear it and the most effective for those who utter it.

  11. i’ve been in lots of bishoprics and we all respected a response like this: “I’ll do it, but you should know that I have very little time to myself right now and I may not be very effective because… OR that Sister Dog-poo and I don’t get along very well and in a stressful situation like visiting inactives, that poor chemistry may be obvious and interfere with the work… OR I am not sure that I could bring my best to the nursery since 2 of them are mine already six days a week and I have 4 under 5 at home… OR I’ll be glad to speak in church, but I’d really appreciate a different topic, we have worked that one over pretty well in the last five months, and I don’t think I could do much besides repeat the others…”

    I suppose there are bishoprics around that feel that they are as omniscient as God and equally infallible, but we were always glad to have information we didn’t have before, even if we should have had it. We always listened to reason. In fact, we loved to get that information and it made a difference. We don’t know everything and never pretended that we did.

    Sometimes we had considered the objection (“We know that you and Sister Poo have had some troubles in the past, we’ve spoken to her about it and believe that it would be good for you to try to get off to a new start on this…”) and said so. Other times we changed the talk assignment. And sometimes we said “Thanks for your candor. Let’s hold on this and we’ll talk it over as a bishopric with this new information.”

    Actually, we want everybody to be happy.

  12. It’s been my experience that if I say “No.” with a smile, the person I’m saying it to is so gobsmacked they don’t know what to do except smile and back away as they tell me to have a good day.

    I like this Bartleby option, though!

  13. Jim,
    I wish you were in the bishopric in my ward. It’s good to know that painfully honest responses are appreciated in some bishoprics.

  14. Jim- appreciated your comments. Mine were honest to a fault. I don’t say them out loud…very often.

    Your responses on the other hand were honestly workable.

  15. Carrie,

    I got that you were exaggerating to make a point. I say a lot of things to my wife (who understands) and to the empty car that I wouldn’t say to anybody else.

    We spend an awful lot of time in the church lying to each other–it would be so much better if we felt we had the license to tell the truth, even if we need to phrase it diplomatically, which is all I was doing with your ‘honest to a fault’ comments.

  16. I find that if I tell people “no” to church assignments, I have less power over how to socially/intellectually progress this church (particularly in leadership positions that I have no idea why i keep getting—ick!)

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