HANDS up if you’ve ever said yes to attending a social event, but you’re secretly hoping it gets cancelled? Or maybe you are a people pleaser in the workplace, singlehandedly taking on a workload that would realistically take an entire army to complete? How about just saying No?
These are the kinds of scenarios explored by Stefanie Preissner in her new memoir Can I Say No? In it, she traces her lifelong inability to say no back to her childhood and a fear of not being included or accepted amongst her peers unless she was prepared to go along with what everyone else was doing, even if it made her feel sad or anxious.
She writes: “I believed I was more lovable with each yes. It was as though each yes I said, against my better judgement, was the next obliging rung on a ladder that would eventually lead to me being happy, whole and accepted.”
Stefanie, a graduate of UCC’s Drama and Theatre Studies, does seem a lot happier now than the little girl we encounter in the book, who thought if you said yes to people they would love you more. However, much as we could all learn a thing or two from her book, she is adamant that it is not a self-help book and she is no expert.
“If you find this book in the self-help section, go to the bookkeeper and say ‘this is in the wrong section’ because I’m still terrible at saying no. It’s an ongoing process; I haven’t sorted it and you’re not going to get any solutions in here,” she says.
We meet in her native Mallow for a book signing at Eason.
“I think it’s important to come down and meet people in Mallow who have been really supportive of me,” she says.
It’s clear there is much warmth and love for her in the room. Many of those lining up are old school friends or neighbours of her mother, who still lives in the town. More often than not, they get hugs rather than handshakes — and of course the obligatory selfie.
There’s even a gift on the table from one of her admirers.
“There’s a really gorgeous girl, Liz, who follows me on Instagram and I’m always complaining that I don’t have a take-away coffee cup and she bought me one! It’s just so lovely of her,” says Stefanie, clearly touched by the gesture.
A contingent from Lightbulb Youth Theatre drop by to support Stefanie and her book, which she says is “really humbling”. It’s also fitting that they should arrive, as Stefanie was the instigator of the theatre group 13 years ago, along with her mother, and Angela, another local woman.
Stefanie has been involved in various capacities since then as writer, director, facilitator and producer.
There is the sense that Stefanie is the ‘local girl done good’, that people are immensely proud of her – — and with good reason. She is the creator of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope which initially aired on RTÉ but since broadcast on BBC and acquired by Netflix. Her first book, Why Can’t Everything Stay the Same? was a best- seller. She has also produced a series of short documentaries, How To Adult, with RTÉ Player and her one-woman theatre show Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend enjoyed sell-out runs in Dublin before touring internationally to Bucharest, Edinburgh and Australia. As a radio play it became RTÉ’s most downloaded podcast.
Now based in Dublin and returning as a star in her home town, she could be seen as a role model for any local creatives who wish to follow their dreams, but the term ‘role model’ is not one that rests easily with her.
She believes that young people need a level of discernment in choosing who to look up to. “Role models are totally flawed,” she says.
Her book signing takes place the day after her latest appearance on The Late Late Show and everyone who greets her is keen to congratulate her on it, to which she replies, “What was I thinking, telling people not to buy my book?”
Without fail, everyone assures her it was just reverse psychology or a good marketing ploy. While she may have morning-after reservations about her methods, she explains what she was thinking in that moment.
“I feel like we live in a society where we have all these ‘shoulds’ and we’re constantly told ‘you should do this’ and ‘you should do that’. You should be clean eating, you should juice, you should exercise, you should breastfeed or you shouldn’t breastfeed.
“So for 12 minutes I was talking about buying my book and then at the end I said, ‘You could also just say no to me telling you to buy my book’.
“If you have a pile of books building up next to your bed, and you feel the intense pressure to continuously do what you’re told, don’t buy the book.
“It’s like we gather all these ‘tools’ around us for self-help or self-improvement or self-love, it’s like the middle aisle of Lidl! But if you’re not using the tools they end up making you feel stressed. So we need to not keep building up this pile of guilt next to the bed.
“So I kind of told people not to buy the book… which I’m sure my publishers are delighted about,” she grimaces.
As our favourite way of saying no in Cork is to say ‘I will, yeah’, I wonder aloud if our dodging of the word is partly an Irish thing.
“I don’t think it is,” she adds, pointing to the fact that Greek-American writer and businesswoman Arianna Huffington (founder of the Huffington Post) really understood the concept of the book when she provided an endorsement of it as a cover quote.
“She doesn’t know who Bosco is, she doesn’t know what The Den is and she still knew that the book was about our value and worth not being tied to saying yes to everything that’s asked of us. It’s a universal thing, I think. But I also think it’s a gender issue,” she continues.
“Girls are socialised to be compliant and to be caregivers and people pleasers, whereas boys are socialised to be tough and strong. I’ve definitely made plans knowing I’m going to cancel them, whereas boys might not even reply to a text message.”
As Stefanie gradually moved away from being a ‘yes’ person, she concedes that she moved too far in the other direction, having set herself rules that included saying no to anything that took her away from her work, anything after 6pm, anything in a bar or nightclub that wasn’t work-related, or anything that took her away from her beloved mother (to whom her book is dedicated) or grandmother.
“I’d said yes for so long, then I swung the other way and said no all the time, which leads to a small life where you’re in bed before the news every night.”
These days, Stefanie has developed strategies to avoid being coerced into doing things she’d rather not do.
“I don’t bring my work diary into meetings. I say, ‘Let me get back to you’. Or ‘Let me think about it’ is a good one. Buying time is what often makes it easier to say no.”
To soften the blows, she adds emojis to her e-mails or adds extra syllables (“I’m soooooo sorry I won’t be able to make this”). She directs people to her finance department to take herself out of the equation.
“It’s really just me chasing invoices but it makes it easier when I meet someone who hasn’t paid me yet. ‘Dave’ in accounts will chase invoices for me but Dave is just me — and I think people know it’s just me pretending to be Dave but it still makes it easier,” she says with a smile.
Her sense of humour is evident throughout the book, which is essentially ‘one woman’s battle with a small word’, as the cover tells us, although she does also look at ‘no’ in the wider world.
“Saying no as a country, we have the capacity to make major change,” she says, referring to Irish voters’ rejection of aspects of our constitution in recent referenda, while she also touches on how the #metoo movement has shone a spotlight on ‘no’ and power.
“You don’t always have to say no but you should know that you could and it would be respected. And I think that’s the key issue with no and power.”
The future is looking rosy for Stefanie, as her next project is to work with BBC 3 on an adaptation of one of her first plays, although she’s also learning to live in the moment.
“I’m trying to focus on being present for this book tour and not constantly looking to the next thing.”
Can I Say No? is published by Hachette Books Ireland and is also available as an ebook.