Just Saying No – for fairy tale princesses and ordinary girls

In researching for the Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #6: Fairytale, I came across all the versions of Donkeyskin/Allerleirauh.

It’s an old fairy tale based around the premise that a Queen dies leaving a daughter, and her father the King declares/promises he will only marry a woman who is as beautiful/wise/kind/etc as his first wife.  The daughter grows up and is the spitting image of her mother, so the King decides he will marry her (yes, really.  It’s sometimes called The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter).  The daughter puts him off by saying that first she needs a dress as golden as the sun (or something equally as un-obtainable), and when this is procured, a dress as silver as the moon (ditto), and when this is managed, one as dazzling as the stars (you get the idea), and finally a coat made from the skins of one of each of all the birds and beasts that exist/the skin of her father’s prized donkey that poops gold (no, I didn’t make that up either!).  When her father manages this she realises she can no longer put him off, so she stuffs her dresses in nutshells, puts on the coat, and runs off into hiding as a servant at another castle.  There she goes to balls in the dresses and the prince falls in love with her and they marry.  And they live happily ever after, more or less.

What I realised in reading these fairy tales is that they are very early examples of the way women are taught that we mustn’t say no.

Yes, we’re supposed to say no to drugs, and peer pressure, and excessive alcohol, and sex, but we still aren’t supposed to tell men “No.”

We aren’t allowed to say “No, you can’t have my number.”  “No, I don’t want to dance with you.”  “No, I won’t go out with you” much less the far worse, just plain old “NO” to any of those scenarios.  Instead, we’re supposed to give fake numbers, to claim sprained ankles or that we’ve promised the dance already, to make up non-existant boyfriends, or say we are taking a break from relationships.

Donkeyskin is doing exactly this.  Her father is demanding to marry her and she can’t say “Umm…you’re my dad and what you are asking for is horrible and dreadful, so NO!”  Instead, she has to come up with excuses: I will once you have made me a nearly impossible frock.  And another impossible frock.  And an even more impossible coat.

Her dad wants to marry her!  “No” should be more than sufficient!

Yes, I understand that in the context of the story she is buying time and trying to find a way out, and in the context of medieval society women had few choices, and it was hard to say no, but in modern society women are taught to give excuses, rather than a simple “No” – just as our crazy-skin wearing princess gives excuses rather than saying “No.”

Another example of not saying no is The Franklin’s tale, from Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales.  Dorigen is happily married, does not want or encourage Aurelius, but is finally pestered by him so much that instead of saying no she gives a joking evasive answer of “I’ll sleep with you if this improbable thing happens.”   Aurelius, of course, manages to make the improbably thing happen, and Dorigen has to face the consequences of her promise.

Now, my parents were really good at teaching me a lot of kinds of “No.”  No to the aforementioned drugs/peer pressure/all alcohol/sex etc came easily to me.  I was even good at the “No” to requests for phone numbers and dates and dancing. when I wasn’t interested.

But I wasn’t taught, and most women aren’t taught, to just say “No” to doing favours.  We are told we always have to be there for friends, we have to be on every committee, plan every party, wear every dreadful bridesmaids dress, bake every batch of cookies for the school fair, help out at every stall, make every frock, and generally say “Sure, of course.”  And if we really don’t want to, if we really can’t – we still can’t say no.  We have to give an excuse.  “Oh, that’s the same day as X”, “Sorry, but X has a cold”, etc, etc.

It was my friend Theresa of Existimatio who introduced me to the idea of just saying “No.”  Not giving a caveat, not giving an excuse, just saying “No”.

She and I and Chiara of Ampersand and some other lovely ladies and even a few men sat around and discussed how to just say “No,” and how that would feel from both perspectives.  Most of the ladies, and certainly myself, found the idea of just saying “No” hard to face.  We’ve had so many years of societal pressure to be nice, and saying “No” isn’t nice.  We’re supposed to soften it – to wrap it in sweet excuses.  We’ll go as far as to go out with two phones – our ‘real’ phone, and a junk one, so we can give the junk ones number and not be caught out in a lie if they text it right away.  The men pointed out that a blank “No” is nicer than a fake phone number.  They also acknowledged, that some men, like Aurelius, are just dicks who won’t take no for an answer.

The solution to this is not to eventually give an excuse.  In modifying our “No” to make it softer and more socially acceptable, some men come to think that “it is usual with young ladies to reject the address of a man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time.”

Now, there is no excuse for men to not believe a “No”, however it is phrased, but not saying “No” didn’t help Dorigen with Aurelius, and nothing but a societal smackdown, no pretty excuses, is going to get those men to understand.  We owe it to ourselves, and to men, to simply say “No”, when we aren’t interested.

Clearly the issue of men asking for phone numbers and dates is not one that troubles me much anymore – I have such an obvious excuse that I never feel obliged to give it, just a “No.”  I’m taking the idea further and working on the other refusals in life: at learning not to give excuses or to say yes to requests for favours that I don’t actually have the time and energy to supply.

I’m not very good at it yet, but I look at  Donkeyskin/Allerleirauh and I think “Sweetie, you really aren’t the best role model.  Your dad just asked to marry you and you couldn’t just say “No.”

We don’t live in a fairy tale.  We don’t live in the Middle Ages.  Hopefully none of us will ever get put in a situation as dreadful as  Donkeyskin/Allerleirauh’s, but even for the small unwanted situations, maybe we should think about just saying “No.”


  1. This is GOOD advice, and I wish more people would take it and see that it is not a bad thing to be honest in such a way. Girls are indeed taught to sugar coat saying no to requests they can’t or don’t want to fulfill and it is wrong to make them feel guilty for it!
    I am pretty blunt when I have to be but it is still not very pleasant to be guilt tripped over it and made out you are a ‘bad’ person just because you are not doing something others want you to do when it’s not right for you. There is also being honest but kind if necessary.
    I’ve had an extremely difficult year and some people who were supposed to be my friends have tried to make me feel guilty for my *feelings* (they are what they are!). That has only reinforced my belief that honesty is better than trying to hide your true self to make others feel better. If people cannot understand that, you’re probably better off without them.

    • Thanks Sis!

      The guilt thing is awful – such a vicious tool to use against someone to get them to bend to your will. I’m really sorry your year has been so difficult – here is hoping that 2014 is a much better one, full of people who really support and help you!

    • Lauren says

      (I have no idea why my comment is prefaced with “radionz.co.nz”!!).

    • Thanks Lauren! There really is a synchronisticity to ideas.

      The story does remind me of that awful Jim Carrey movie about not lying – but in that one every ‘truth’ is just an excuse to say something nasty and awful. There has to be a middle ground…

  2. Lynne says

    You are so right!

    I am better at saying “No” than I was. I now have the excuse that I have M.E. and really can’t cope, but you are quite right – I am still sugaring the pill. And I still feel bad about saying “No”. I’m working on it!

    • Thank you Lynne (full credit must go to Theresa for introducing the idea though).

      I think there are times and people who deserve full courtesy and politeness, and a full explanation, but we do still get lots of requests that are just impositions, and should be treated as such.

  3. Jessica says

    My current favorite way to decline is saying “I’m not available,” and adding some form of apology if the situation calls for it. It’s a no, but not a direct one. Gives people a chance to realize that they are not the only priority in my life.

    • That was my first response when Theresa introduced the idea of just plain ‘No’ to me, and while I still think there are many situations when it is the appropriate response (when it’s true, and you want to be polite!) I also realised all the situations in my life where that response left the door open for someone to say “Well, when are you available” and I ended up getting trapped into something that I did not want to be involved in. Polite, courteous, thoughtful responses work when the world is polite, courteous, and thoughtful. Unfortunately the older I get the more I realise that there is an element of the world that will just take advantage of you as much as possible, and that nice people (and particularly nice women) just aren’t taught to cope with it, and that a really good start is just learning how to say a flat NO.

  4. Good post. My freshman year of college I walked into a similar discussion. The guys all said they just want a yes or no. It doesn’t matter how many nice things you say if your answer is still no and keeping them in suspense isn’t doing them any favors. So I took it to heart and gave straight NOs to the guys that asked.
    We need to learn to say no so we can say yes to the best, whether it’s a man, a request, or an opportunity.

    • I’ve been amazed at how many guys say they want a flat ‘No’. I learned this after it applied to me as far as men go, but I’m working on it for everything else!

  5. Hear, hear! Reminds me of the book Boundaries, by Cloud & Townsend. Respecting the No, that is, not the would-be incestuous king. (Where’s a palace coup when you need one?)

    I remember being gobsmacked to hear of a woman who wouldn’t let her daughters turn down anyone who asked them to the prom (so they had to go with whoever asked first) because she didn’t want her daughters to hurt anyone’s feelings!
    You would think the private No would be less hurtful than the public realisation that she doesn’t actually want to be there with you. And what about when someone asks her to be their girlfriend? Or their wife?

    Personally, I think one of the best things parents can do for their children is teach them a firm, polite, guilt-free No.

    • Elise says

      My great aunt had the same rule for her daughters…but she’s 92 years old. That sort of belief should only belong in the past!

      That’s a very good book. On the subject of fairy tales, I like From the Forest, a book by a Scottish author examining place and theme in northern European tales. As an author in her own right, one of the neat things about FtF is that she takes a hard look at some of the misogyny and how it is expressed and how it influences story.

    • “Personally, I think one of the best things parents can do for their children is teach them a firm, polite, guilt-free No.”

      Isn’t that true!

      My parents were very good at doing this for many situations, but it crossed hairs with ‘being kind to everybody’ and I fell into the trap of feeling guilty if you couldn’t do everything everyone asked of you.

  6. As I was reading this on my phone, I was thinking, “Yes! She’s so right! YESSSS!”

    And then I got to the part where you mentioned me, and our conversation. This is a great discussion to have in a wider, ongoing, basis, and I’m SO glad you blogged about it.

    I need to remind myself to say ‘no’ with no equivocations.

    • I thought you would approve of this! Yes, full credit!

      It took a while to percolate in my mind, and then coalesced reading those fairytales and Chaucer.

      And I need to work on it continuously!

  7. Woolbothy says

    Thanks for a lovely post. You’re so right! What a great response you’ve had too. I like to say “No, thank you”. Just a wee pinch of ‘sugar’.

    • Thank you!

      I do say ‘No thank you’, and ‘Sorry, I’m otherwise engaged’ when the enquirer deserves my respect and courtesy, but I have to remember that while you shouldn’t be rude, you don’t have to be courteous to an inquiry that isn’t framed courteously – and too many aren’t.

  8. Nice post. I much prefer honesty over fake polite excuses.
    It’s the reason why my boss urges me to please adopt some diplomacy 😉

    • Thanks Joost! It’s really good to get a man’s perspective.

      I know this is weird, but may I ask your nationality? Directness/polieteness does vary from culture to culture, and with all the different cultures working in NZ there is sometimes friction between the Kiwi ‘super polite but a little distant’ and emphasis on your demeanor mattering more than your output in the workplace, conflicting with the focus on directness and efficiency that you find in specific European countries.

  9. As a teenager, I had trouble saying no and had worked out all sorts of excuses to avoid most things. As an adult, though, I’ve learned that “No” + [reasonable reason] = a good formula for saying no, but not sounding too harsh. I still have friends, so I guess it must be alright. Although, I’ve been accused of being blunt. So there’s that. But, I’d rather be blunt than forced to do stuff I don’t want to do. 😀

  10. (Long time lurker, first-time commenter!)

    I largely agree with you here, but the thing is? When people (because guys do this too!) say “I’d love to, but I can’t because (excuse)”, they ARE saying no. They’re just saying it in a way that saves face – for the person saying no, or the person asking the question, or sometimes both. Pretty much everyone who understands any social interaction knows that if someone says that and doesn’t follow up with “but how about (alternative suggestion to accomplish thing)” they’re saying no. People who pretend not to understand that? They’re people who are choosing to ignore your “no” because it suits them, and by and large they’re going to do that whether you use the word “no” or not.

    On the question of dates, though…the two phones thing does seem over the top, but my guess is, women aren’t doing that because they can’t imagine saying no straight out. They’re doing it because they’ve learned that saying no directly has consequences which can range from ongoing harassment (“But whyyyyyyy”, etc.) to outright violence – just like Donkeyskin knew there would be severe consequences to refusing her father, the king. But the weird thing is, discussions about this are never about why men should learn to take refusals courteously, they’re about how women refuse wrong. So, sure, women should commit to just saying “No thanks” if they don’t like a man – when men commit to saying “Okay, sorry if I bothered you” when women say that.

    • Elise says

      That’s important, isn’t it? “Saying no in a way that lets both people save face.” I like that. My go-to is “I wish I could, but I just can’t” or some variation.

  11. Elise says

    Let’s be friends forever! You me, and everyone else commenting. Female agency should be celebrated and discussed!

    It’s funny: I lived in Germany for a year, a country that makes real attempts to rectify past racism by enacting laws and social codes that promote equality. Women can talk without fear of being interrupted, condescended to, or asked if they were on their period. So moving back to the states was a real challenge! I would actually get hit on my side on hallways. In Germany, two people split a hallway. In the US, a man takes up the middle hallway, and a woman is told to be small! Any ‘no’ earns you the moniker ‘B****’

    I hung around a few American army folks while in Germany. That was scary! I’m an American and I have a degree, and so I was immediately judged to be wife material or F*** material (no in-between, and no friendships, and no word weaker than the F-word). They actually thought they had a right to me! The word ‘no’ was a challenge, so I had to decline in other ways: Pretending I was German (no marrying foreigners!), putting out a cigarette in a drink, etc.

    Did you know that part of the gender income disparity in the US is because women who negotiate a salary have a much harder time at work than men?

    I have worked with survivors of military sexual trauma. Our (women’s) learned inability to say ‘no’ in the face of a macho culture leads to what academics call ‘rape culture’. We come up with all kinds of elaborate excuses like the wearing of a short skirt in order to give the man permission to assault the woman. Wouldn’t it all be so much easier if we just celebrated the word ‘NO’?

    • Beatrix says

      I’ve lived in India & Nepal for the past 12 years – the culture is such that a direct ‘no’ is considered rude from both sexes.
      Negating anyone here ( especially guests) is considered such a social faux pas often incorrect or wrong answers are given to ‘save face’.
      You can’t even ‘respectfully decline’ without causing some embarrassment.
      As you can imagine this causes a lot of confusion & you can’t be certain what exactly someone means when they nod in agreement or say ‘yes’.
      Even writing that was confusing.

  12. This makes so much sense! I guess I haven’t thought about it much, but it’s really bad that I feel guilty about saying “no”. A few weeks ago a girl at school was bugging me about going somewhere or other and I just wanted to stay in the library, but I felt awful saying so. I hate feeling awful for things I shouldn’t feel awful about.
    I don’t make excuses though, I mostly just stare and the floor and quietly mumble my refusals, because I find lying very difficult. Sometimes I end up offending people without meaning to, which also makes me feel more guilty than it should.
    We all really need to practice saying “no”. Thank you for writing this!

    This is another good reason to be an evil witch/Queen for the fairytale challenge. I bet they don’t have any problems saying “NO”. Heck, they could have people who don’t respect them beheaded! Villains don’t need to sugar coat anything. Besides, they are usually very well dressed.

    A gold-pooping donkey, you say? That’s got to be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard. Very useful though.

  13. This is a very well written piece, thanks. I never gave much thought to the word no, exept that I knew of myself that I had trouble saying it in the past (has gotten loads better now I’m not an insecure girl anymore but a grown up woman)

    I really like Elise’s idea of celebrating the word ‘No’, couldn’t that be a challenge? You could interpretate it in different ways I think.

  14. Sallie says

    What a great post and comments. This has really made me think. There is a big difference between potentially dangerous situations, like Lucy mentions, when a woman might feel like a direct ‘no’ will provoke violence, and less charged situations, like a simple date or favor request. But, yes, wouldn’t it be great if all people felt comfortable saying no, and all people would respect that!

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