Women and the Art of Saying No

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Women do not know how to say, ‘No’. They get into trouble for hesitating and not speaking their minds, clearly.  Here’s a bold and gutsy reaction to this problem by Payal, in the weekly column, exclusively in Truths.

I’ve always maintained that anything men can do, women can do too, whether it be boxing or motorcycle maintenance. However, I must concede, there is one thing that men are better at than women. And that is the ability to say ‘No’.

For a girl, it takes a serious amount of growing up, first to be able to say ‘no’ and then, even more, to say it in the right way. Many of us struggle with this even when we are grandmothers – perhaps especially when we are grandmothers!

Much of this is because of the way we women have been socialised: they are expected to be more ‘adjusting’, have a bigger bandwidth, be able to compromise better. This is as true of the West as it is of our own country. More so, because India remains very sensitive to the fact that many marriages are arranged and girls go to a joint family.

Add to this our upbringing, where we just don’t consider it polite to say ‘No’, especially to those who are elder to us, or whom we respect. In a study in schools, it was no surprise that teachers usually singled out girls to be ‘helpful’ to fellow students. Psychologically, society gears up girls to seek approval, be generally pleasing and cooperative and put others before self. In counterpoint, it is considered to be more ‘manly’ to be assertive. No wonder then that girls really need to learn to say, ‘No’.

Emotionally, even friendships are likely to get disrupted by a refusal. Saying ‘No’ is a delicate art, and being women, we navigate our way to a refusal often as tactfully as we can. When I think of all the trouble I have had because I was a polite, well brought up girl who had not been taught how to say no, I wish I could turn back the clock.

I think, as a mother, it has been one of the things I have taught my girls.

Let’s look at some of the everyday situations in which we find it difficult to say no:

At Work: Boss piling on extra work on you. Colleague swanks off, leaving most of the project work to you.

Within : Partner/ wants to make love but you don’t.

– Daughter asks for help in finishing homework.

–   A friend passes on horrendous bed cover to you as a gift.

–   Mother-in-law wants you to entertain and feed unpleasant, rude relatives.

–   Husband wants shirt ironed when you’re ready to leave for work.

–   And now, (the worst, as per me) people wanting to be your FB ‘friends’ not because they are interested in and want to get to know you, but because they want to sell you something. Or because they want to increase the number of friends on their list.

It took me a long time to be brave enough to say ‘No’.

The best way to do it? Directly, clearly, and politely.

The situations I mentioned? Here are my ways to refuse them. I don’t deal with ambiguity or false promises that I can’t keep. A direct approach may piss people off, but leaves you more comfortable, in the long run. And yes, I have no problem admitting that I learned this from seeing how men handle these situations.

At Work: I am sorry, I already have too much work and it would be good if you could give it to someone else so that I can do justice to what’s on my plate.


– Hey, we were supposed to do this Project together, but if you don’t have the time, let’s go to the Boss and get it reassigned.

Within Relationships: Not in the mood for sex, “Not tonight darling.”

Homework Blackmail: Sorry darling, that’s your homework, and if I do it, you won’t learn anything.

Ghastly Bedcover: Friend, I appreciate your wanting to give me a gift, but that bed cover really won’t look good in my house, so why don’t you please keep it and use it?

Obnoxious Relatives: Ma, I am sorry, but I want you to know they were very rude to me last time we met, and I would rather not have them over.

Ironing Details: No, I really don’t have the time, please wear another shirt. On the weekend, I’ll show you how to iron your stuff, so that you don’t have to depend on me.

It’s a long road to understand how psychologically women are maneuvered into doing things or agreeing to things. Once you understand the difference between doing something because you want to and feel like, and having to go along because you don’t know how to refuse, refusal actually becomes easy and guilt free. I think it improves relationships because you don’t carry around the of being forced into something you’d rather not have done.

The reason we dread saying no is that we connect refusal with rejection or insult. Sometimes, having to say ‘no’ makes us feel cornered or angry. Let your ‘No’ be without , complaint or blame. Let it be clear and non-confusing. Let it be honest, but not insulting. Let it be short – don’t get caught up in a tangle of wordy explanations and feel compelled to say yes. You don’t have to always give explanations – in some situations it works fine.

Think about it. No is so important, it saves you in situations where you feel threatened and unsafe.

What’s the Best way to say No?

Short and sweet, “I am sorry, it won’t be possible.”

©Payal Talreja

Photos from the Internet

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Payal Talreja

Payal Talreja

Businesswoman, curator of handlooms, poet, writer, and erstwhile doctor. Payal Talreja practices everything except her involuntary ‘profession’. She claims that words chose her and are now her weapon of choice because an activist born will stay silent for no man. A wanderer, a voyager, she’s happy to slum it or luxuriate in any life experience. She crafts poems and fiercely feminist essays and will assume her ‘Chandi’ avatar to ‘write’ any wrong.
Payal Talreja