A co-worker stops you as you're about to leave the office. "Could you do me just a teeny-weeny little favor before you leave?" she asks in her usual helpless/hopeless tone of voice.
"My boss just asked me to stay late and wait for a call, but I have to pick up my 6-year-old at the day-care center. Could you stay late in my place? Pl-e-e-ase? You know how it is when you have kids."
Never mind that you, too, have commitments to keep. Never mind that you, too, want to go home -- now! Never mind that you definitely, emphatically, without a doubt do not want to do this.
What you say, if you're like most of us, in your very best assertive, straightforward tone of voice is not: "I understand that it's a problem for you to stay late tonight, so-and-so, but I won't be able to help you out this time," but: "Uh, OK. I guess so. Sure. I'll stay late. No, I don't mind. Me? Mind? Why would I mind?"
A neighbor telephones to ask if you'll bake three dozen cupcakes for the bake sale this Saturday and takes a half-hour of your valuable time in the process.
Never mind that you haven't had time to defrost a frozen cupcake -- let alone bake one -- for at least five years. Never mind that you've already committed yourself to at least four other equally worthy causes this week.
What you say, before you know it, is not: "I wish I could contribute to this particularly worthy cause, but I won't be able to this time," but: "Cupcakes? Sure. Why not? I'll be glad to."
Cupcake-baking probably is one of those learned skills you never forget, but that's not the point. The point is that I don't know a working woman anywhere who isn't struggling with this business of learning to "just say no" to some of the demands that some of the people in our lives make on us.
"I resolve every week that this week I am going to stop saying 'yes' to everyone else's needs and start taking care of my own instead; and every week I end up saying 'yes' to 15 things I don't have time for and haven't the slightest interest in doing," is how a secretary and mother of three in Portsmouth, N.H., put it not long ago.
We women are still taking care of everyone and everything except ourselves because we're far too afraid that if we just say "no," we'll hurt someone's feelings, or make someone angry, or cause a scene, or be seen as selfish, uncaring, callous, self-centered, driven you-know-whats.
So we say "yes" to the requests and demands of everyone and everything else in our lives instead, and "no" to our own emotional and physical needs.
Said a woman who waited on me in a Cambridge, Mass., restaurant not long ago, the mother of 4-year-old twins: "Oh, yes, I still say 'yes' when I mean 'no,' and 'Oh, sure, I don't mind' instead of 'Go away! Leave me alone!'
"I learned it from my mother, I guess -- the martyr of the world -- but if I don't unlearn it pretty soon, there's going to be nothing left of me."
We working women must stop taking care of everyone and everything else, and start taking care of ourselves. We must begin to put ourselves at the very top of our priority lists -- not at the very bottom. We must stop believing that we're indispensable and believe, instead, that our needs are important, too.
I myself said "no" to four requests this week. Three were telephone salespersons and one was a 9-year-old, true, but we all have to start somewhere, and surely this business of being assertive gets easier with time.
Questions should be addressed Working Woman, Features Department, The Sun, Baltimore 21278.