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Mary Kenny: 'Why I said "Yes" to learning the very useful skill of turning someone down'

 

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Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

I have never identified with the feminist mantra "no means no", because to me, "no" has often meant "give me more time", "persuade me", "I'll have to think about it", or "let's have another drink, shall we?"

Life - and life's decisions - is a movable feast, and I'm deeply into "constructive ambiguity" anyway. Nothing is black and white. A detail can change a proposition. Everything is complicated, but time sorts out most situations.

All the same, I thought it might be useful to try and soak up one of Sarah Knight's popular books about learning to say "no" with confidence: namely, F**k No!, in her own dulcet words.

Knight calls herself an anti-guru, and she has had much success with an earlier tome, succinctly named The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. This didn't appeal to me, as I subscribe to the view that caring about something is a lot more life-changing, and life-enhancing, than not caring. As a young newspaper executive, I once complained to my editor that a certain writer was always fussing about perfecting her copy. He replied: "You'll find, Mary, that the people who fuss are the people who care. And the people who care are the people who achieve." The said fusspot writer went on, indeed, to a position of global achievement.

So I wasn't into Knight's first message. But her lessons on how to signal "no" when you really and truly want to do so? That could be useful. Because you can get yourself into an awful tangle by saying "yes" too easily to all kinds of invitations, suggestions or requests.

Helpfully, Knight identifies four types of people who keep saying "yes" when, privately, they'd much rather say "no". There is (1) The People Pleaser; (2) The Overachiever; (3) The FOMO'er - that's the person addicted to Fear Of Missing Out and (4) The Pushover. These are the yes-men (and women) who eagerly agree to attend parties, weddings, baby showers - Knight is an American - and various social and professional events which they don't really fancy.

The People Pleaser wants to be thought of as a nice person who doesn't like to disappoint. The Over-Achiever is a perfectionist who thinks that they can do everything best - and likes getting the credit. The FOMO-er worries an opportunity might be lost by saying "no". The Pushover is what my late Aunty Nora would call "soft", adding, as she did, that the world soon takes advantage of anyone perceived as soft.

Knight, with copious sprinkling of the F-word, proceeds with her tutorials about setting boundaries, taking control of your own time and space, giving firm answers - often polite, sometimes more robust, and in her own hard-as-nails way, sometimes quite witty. (How to turn down a friend's request to be a sperm donor and other assorted favours solicited, from money matters to pet-sitting.) You don't have to give a reason to say "no", but if you do, keep it simple. The Meghan phrase "this isn't working for me" is often proffered.

And if giving an excuse for not attending a wedding, birthday party or professional event, don't fib, lest you should be found out. Here I recall Maeve Binchy's advice: Never give two excuses of non-attendance, such as "I've got the flu, and anyway, my grandmother just died". One might be believable, two is ridiculous.

Knight's advocacy for the power of "no" (or, as she puts it, "f**k, no!") stimulates examination of our yes-reflex motives. Why do I say "yes"? Am I afraid of not being liked or popular, as in not being picked for the school hockey team? Yes. Am I fearful I'll never be asked again? Yes. Am I flattered to be asked at all? Yes. Should I be grateful to be included? Yes. But still, I have the entitlement to say "no", and consider my own time, energy and interests.

The downside of the Knight credo is that she doesn't seem to grasp the importance of reciprocity in the wheels of social (or personal) intercourse. People do obliging things for one another, and the usual understanding is that a favour will be repaid. A friend of mine recently fed a neighbour's cat for five weeks, over a long holiday: the neighbours owe him big-time, and the favour will be repaid. Everyone wins.

Even in matters of sexual consent, hard-hearted Knight tells her readers that if they don't want sex, even in a relationship, just say 'no!' But sex in a relationship is a relationship: in married life, to my recollection, there is also reciprocity. Desire ebbs and flows but if the relationship flourishes, it all works out. But not just by saying 'F**k, no!'

Knight provides the no-sayer with myriad ways of giving a negative response, and that's a useful lexicon to have. But not all of them have 'worked for me' when I've been on the receiving end. I once asked Frank Skinner, the TV comedian, to make a guest appearance at a serious writers' group I was chairing. His response was one that Knight suggests: "I'm sorry I can't help you out." I found this patronising - I wasn't asking to be "helped out", just making a professional approach to a speaker.

Saying "no" skilfully is quite an art.

Weekend Magazine