Just a girl who can’t say ‘No’?

Don’t want to do something? Just say no. It’s that easy. Isn’t it? N… N… Sorry, says Deborah Frances-White, it really isn’t. But it should be.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Last week someone asked me to do something and I said no. Obviously I didn’t use the actual word ‘no’. That’s not a word you can say out loud in response to a request for a favour. No, the word no didn’t come out of my mouth. It couldn’t. It would get stuck somewhere between the tongue and the hard palate. So I didn’t say it per se.

After much thought I wrote: “I’m a bit worried about doing that. I would if I thought it would do any good but I’m not sure it will. I hope that’s OK.” Then I offered to do a larger favour for the person in question, in lieu of the one she’d asked for.

The word no itself is an outrageous sound that implies I have no empathy for the person I’m speaking to and that I am denying them something they’re almost certainly owed. In fact, it took me ages to realise that ‘no’ was even an option in this circumstance.

The woman asking me for the favour was a stranger to me. We’d been introduced online and she asked me if I could ask a famous friend for a favour. The thing is, I don’t know the famous person very well. My first thought was, “How do I do this without offending anyone or looking presumptuous?” It didn’t occur to me for quite a long time that I had the option to say no.

When it dawned on me, I realised it was a brilliant idea. A daring and exciting notion. A powerful proposition. I just wasn’t sure how to pull it off without making the asker feel embarrassed and without feeling terribly guilty for the rest of my life.

When I explained to the woman I had just met that I didn’t really know the famous person terribly well and that she would probably have more luck contacting them directly, she immediately apologised. She said she had no idea, and would of course never have asked had she realised.

She then explained that she was only asking on behalf of another friend who had asked her. That friend was doing something for a charity herself. It was a loop of requests from women trying to do the right thing and say yes to sisters in need. I apologised to her for saying no and then offered to do her a different favour. She was effusive in her thanks and apologetic for the misunderstanding.

“I searched for ‘How to say no if you’re a man’. The first article was titled ‘How to say no like a man.’”

Listen, neither of us pushed a bad guy off the top of a building and then made a witty quip but it’s a start, isn’t it? A start in the evolution towards doing the things that we have time for and that make us happy and that we feel are right for us without being insensitive to the needs and feelings of others.

I have only recently realised that somewhere in my core being, I’d rather be needed than loved. The origin of this terrible truth is probably a subject for my therapist, but whatever the reasons it means that I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No. But I’ve looked around and I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE. I see overworked career women and mothers (sometimes packaged in the very same human being) take on other people’s work and voluntary roles that are effectively full-time jobs and car pools that are in the opposite direction of their lives.

“Could I mind your twins while you go to the Bahamas? Of course – I’ve got three children anyway. I won’t even notice two more.”

“Will I take over your PowerPoint presentation at this international conference at the last minute even though I have no idea what I’m talking about and may damage my reputation? I’d be honoured. It’ll be great exposure.”

“Will I run the shadow cabinet for a month while you go to the loo? Of course. Take your time.”

What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we say yes to no?

On Googling ‘how to say no’, I discovered all the articles were aimed at women.

“Try replacing the word no with unfortunately,” suggested one irritating commentator. “Say ‘I don’t lend money to friends because that’s the way I was raised,’” offered another. “That way you are shifting the blame to yourself and your upbringing and won’t offend the person asking for the loan.” Well, as long as you’re taking the blame for not indefinitely surrendering that grand you haven’t got to someone you met at Pilates, that’s the main thing.

I searched for ‘How to say no if you’re a man’. The first article was titled ‘How to say no like a man.’

I found only one page giving men advice on how to say ‘no’ and the opening line read: “Have you ever refused a woman’s sexual advances? I’ve said no to women who were too old, too young, too drunk, too fat, too thin, too smelly, and even too needy.” That’s the sum total of advice for saying ‘no’ directed at guys. How to say no to needy, young, old, smelly, fat, thin women.

“Could I mind your twins while you go to the Bahamas? Of course – I’ve got three children anyway. I won’t even notice two more.”

Screw you, internet! The results of that search made me furious. Furious at all the mealy-mouthed advice for how women can find euphemisms for ‘no’. How we can mean no but say “sorry”. How we can say no like a man – but not actually like a man with the word and the attitude and everything.

How we can say, as one website suggested, “I’m busy till Wednesday. Ask me Thursday.” But what happens when Thursday comes, huh? Then we’re back to “sorry”, “unfortunately” or more likely, “Yes – I’d love to mind your pit bull for the weekend. What’s his name? Asbo? He sounds lovely. Can I pick him up? Of course I can. I’ll just get the baby in the car seat.”

Those thousands of results on that search engine made me angry. Angry enough to say “No. Enough. No more.” No with an N and an O. Not with an S and an Orry.

And I did. A man asked me for something today. Something I could have done but which would have exhausted me and taken time away from my own projects. Something I could have done but did not want to do. I didn’t email him. I didn’t text him. I phoned him. And I said in a really nice tone of voice, “No, I can’t help you with this one. But I hope you find someone who can. Or maybe you could do it yourself.”

“Yes,” he replied, “I think it’s probably something I should learn to do myself, anyway.” And that was it. That was the consequence of my terrifying ‘no’. I was free. And he was OK. And it was all going to be all right. I had said the word aloud and it felt good. I’m not just a girl who can’t say no. I’m a woman. And ‘no’ is no problem for me.


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Written by Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and screenwriter. Her BBC Radio 4 show Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice is currently on Mondays at 11.30am and ListenAgain. Episodes one and four are about how she found her biological family, including Kate and William.