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Brianna Parkins: ‘That doesn’t work for me actually’. Unapologetically saying ‘no’ is mesmerising

I recently overheard a woman utter a magic incantation that would banish having to put myself out against my own will. It changed me forever

'That doesn’t work for me actually': this woman's friendly but firm way of saying no to a request was a thing of beauty. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Despite being in my 30s, I have not yet worked out a polite way to get out of things that are not in my best interest. “That’s totally fine,” I’d say to people who asked if I minded sharing a room with their great-aunt at their wedding at a charming little country house that was extremely difficult to get to, had no accommodation and was happening on a Tuesday. “No worries,” I would say to requests to go out of my way massively to make things slightly easier for someone else. When in fact I was all worries. Only and entirely made up of worries.

But then I overheard a woman, who I assume must have been a white witch, utter a magic incantation that would banish having to put myself out against my own will. Ever again. “That doesn’t work for me actually.”

She was friendly, warm, open but firm. She didn’t explain why. She didn’t have to ramble and tie herself in knots the way I would have usually done when turning down a request. “I’m so sorry, we would love to have you and your unemployed boyfriend who ‘doesn’t believe’ in deodorant stay for an undefined amount of time while his rapping career takes off, but we actually have a one-bedroom flat and we have this weird thing where we like to sleep together on our own bed that we pay rent for. Plus I’m having major surgery and I’d be clogging up the bathroom changing dressings, which would be so annoying to you. Anyway hope you understand, apologies again. Hope that’s okay.” And so forth and so on until I decide that burning my own house down is the only way out of this predicament without hurting anyone’s feelings.

No, this woman simply stated that whatever someone was asking for “didn’t work” for her. You could hear the full stop hanging in the air. It was a thing of beauty. I’m grateful I saw something so mesmerising in my lifetime. It was my aurora borealis. The Halley’s Comet of social interaction. It changed me forever.


Going out of your way for others is a fact of life. It’s something we encourage our children to do and that we should do more of as adults. It’s part of our social fabric, but unfortunately some feel entitled to getting everything without giving anything themselves. They only want to make withdrawals from a bank account they haven’t put deposits in.

Brianna Parkins: I’m leaving Ireland. I don’t have the energy for life hereOpens in new window ]

Somewhere along the line it seems modern life promoted “chancerism” as the way to get ahead. Being a “chancer” – sweet-talking someone into a good deal or into helping you out – can be an admirable trait as long as no one is hurt and the outcome is good. Like asking a successful business to sponsor a local GAA team’s new jerseys. It’s more of a problem when government tenders for protective equipment during a pandemic are given to people who have never made it and wouldn’t have even known the blue bit of a face mask goes on the outside.

Moving to the other side of the world has given me plenty of practice in swatting away the chancers. It has made me ruthless with a house to pack down in less than a week, people to see and business affairs to wrap up (telling the neighbour’s cat I haven’t abandoned him, this isn’t his fault and he’s the bestest boy). No, it “doesn’t work for me” to bring 2kg of Tayto and curry sauce to your Sydney cousin in my bags that already contain five years’ worth of living. As for would I mind driving the drawers I gave away for free from Dublin to your house in Monaghan because you’re busy this week? You best believe I do.

The buy, swap and sell groups will have you saying “the neeeccccckkkk” in the manner of Aoife McGregor’s voice note (which is honestly inspirational listening if you have to assert a boundary with someone). We have been told off for selling furniture to one buyer a full day earlier, because another buyer “needed it for baby clothes”. Well they should have considered we needed the money and fast for foreign cans.

I have been haggling with trendy but terrifying teenage girls on Depop who will beat me down on the last 50 cent, me thinking they need the money more than me. Only for me to send the package off and realise their address is Enya’s castle or somewhere else I’d feel too poor to even walk past without calling the gardaí on myself.

At the end of the day we are all just slightly more complicated monkeys with PayPal accounts. We can’t blame each other for acting out of self-interest but we can say no to people if they are infringing on us. Be wary of sentences starting “could you just, would you mind, there’s just this thing”. Stand firm. Be strong. And remember to think, “does this work for me?”