10 Jun 2022

How to say no

British people have always felt that an outright negative is rather bald and impolite. There is a tendency, therefore, to bedeck a negative with evasions and circumlocutions. If, for example, you ask someone “do you like the meal?”, you can be sure that a reply along the lines of “it’s certainly very interesting” is a resounding negative.

If you ask someone if they want to do something/go somewhere and they reply, irritatingly, with “we’ll see”, this probably means that they want to do nothing of the sort.

This tendency to obfuscate the negative often comes with the best of (polite) intentions – a desire to please everybody, to accentuate the positive, to oil the wheels of social intercourse and ensure that interactions are seamless and agreeable. However, being perennially incapable of saying “no” can also lead to confusion and frustration. If someone hedges around their response to a social invitation with prevarications and uncertainty it is very hard to establish whether they are actually going to attend. It would be much better for anyone initiating or hosting an event to know where he or she stands, with no ambiguity.

Try and perfect the art of refusing politely and unambiguously. If you can’t make it to an event, just say (or text or write) something along the lines of: “Thank you so much for inviting me to xxxxx. I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to come – I do hope you all have a great time.” If you recoil at the starkness of this statement, you can always add an excuse or a reason (overwork, other commitments, holiday, family obligations etc). The main point is that everyone knows where they stand. If it’s possible, you can always suggest an alternative, which will end the transaction on a positive note.

If you are asked to a social event or date in person, you may find your natural British tendency is to default to the “we’ll see” formula. This is maddeningly vague. Instead, try and school yourself in the art of the straightforward negative, British-style. This is always prefaced with an apology: ‘I’m afraid”, “I’m sorry but”, “Unfortunately”, along the lines of “I’m afraid I can’t come to dinner on Tuesday.” If you are not a person who customarily refuses, then your negative will be satisfyingly decisive.

However harsh you may find these simple negatives, remind yourself that you will be heading off a lot of trouble down the line. Simply saying no is obviously preferable to accepting everything and then cancelling 99 per cent of your commitments. Your inability to say no may well be a symptom of FOMO, and the firm belief that a serial refusenik will fall off most people’s social radar. But you are much more likely to be decisively dropped if you repeatedly let people down. You will get the reputation for being flaky and people will stop asking you.

The ability to say no unambiguously obviously extends well beyond the social sphere. If someone asks you to do them a favour, an evasive answer is no substitute for a straightforward refusal (“I’m afraid that won’t be possible”).  You can mitigate the blow by suggesting an alternative option (“I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help you move house next week, but I can give you the number of an excellent removal company.”)

Be careful you don’t fall into the trap of being an affirmative, appeasing person who agrees to everything, and then proceeds to let people down and leave them in the lurch.


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