No thanks, that doesn't sound particularly interesting and I don't like you enough to take time away from reading people's Facebook status updates

I have a question: What is the best way to turn down an offer or invite for something you don't want to do?

Until about two years ago, I always thought if you could potentially squeeze something into your day you should. Even if it inevitably led to misunderstandings and sprints down subway stairs and headaches and panic over being late. I thought when someone said, "Can you go to the movies Saturday?" that, unless you'd be in another country or giving birth or at a wedding or funeral during that exact time the movie was showing--unless you literally could not go--the answer was yes, you could and therefore you would.

I figured out finally that wasn't always true, that you were allowed to not want to do something. But then I ran into trouble over what exactly to say when that happened. We're all taught to give polite excuses, along the lines of "I'd love to but I have a lot of work to do tonight" or "That sounds great but I have out of town guests."

The excuse can be adorned with all kinds of peppy and misleading phrases: Next time. Too bad I didn't know about it sooner. If there's any way I can get out of x I will. Let me try to make it work; I'll let you know if something changes.

The more specific and testable the better -- I'm meeting Kristin. It's my dad's birthday. I have after- work drinks. Those kinds of reasons leave the inviter feeling disappointed, but not dejected. Even a vague excuse can sometimes do the trick: "I don't think I can squeeze it in" is often acceptable, without reference to what would potentially get squooshed. It's assumed to be something legit like work or dentist appointments and not simply reading In Touch magazine and ordering Chinese food.

What all these excuses have in common is the suggestion that you would if you could. Saying yes might be your first choice, but you don't feel that you have a choice. All the polite excuses, even vague ones, imply that you're not allowed to make your own decisions about how you spend your time. So is the best approach to say that since your free time is limited you'd rather do something else with the person? (Unless you'd rather not see that person at all, in which case it becomes a much bigger problem.) Recently my friend Ivan said he doesn't want to keep saying "I didn't call because I've been so busy with work" or "Sorry I haven't called you back, there's been a lot going on" but just, "I didn't call because I didn't call." [He also pointed out that people don't need a reason that makes sense for why you didn't do something, but any reason at all, even something totally unrelated, like your girlfriends' best friend is moving to Paris. "Oh! Okay, now I get it."]

So -- recently I began to try for more clarity, fewer excuses, more "ownership" over decisions. But I've been so clumsy about it. I liked something my friend H. said to me a few months ago: "I won't be joining you." It works for short-term plans. But I tried it today in regards to a trip overseas and it sounded ridiculous. Like a computer.

"Would you like to go to Italy with us?"
"I won't be joining you."

Alex has a friend who used to say, in response to anything that involved opening his wallet, "Guy, I don't have the money." Alex would point out that he'd just spent $80 on a Metallica concert and they were only talking about getting a $3 beer. The friend now obligingly offers a revise: "I don't have the money for that."

Recently H. asked me about going to a Shonen Knife concert. I responded that I appreciated the invite and would like to see her soon but, "That's not something I would prioritize doing."

Again, robotic. Laughable. My friend H. understood what I meant but said she thought it could across as rude. She suggested saying something about not wanting to pay that much to see that particular band. It's better than saying you can't afford something, which in most cases, for most people I know, isn't true, but either way I usually feel references to how much something costs sound critical. I guess we all have our own idiosyncrasies about what feels right and what doesn't when we're being turned down.

Then again any excuse at all leaves an opening for a comeback. But -- you had time to call back your sister. But -- the birthday party won't last all night and we can meet after. But -- I can lend you the money. I don't know who said this, but my friend at work used to quote it all the time, usually in reference to coming back mildly buzzed from a 3-hour lunch: "Never explain, never apologize."

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Can you give me examples of clear, straight-forward, self-actualized answers that come across well, in word or in print or both?

Can we, like tired 2-year-olds, look someone point blank in the eye when he or she asks if we'd like to go to the park and unapologetically tell them we don't want to?

Instead of giving excuses, can we simply be excused?


  1. it's easy; become a doctor. you can get out of anything you want, and later people are amazed and happy to see you whenever you do actually show up. downside: it takes ten years, and 99% of the time you're skipping events because you're in the middle of a 24 hour shift. :)

  2. Rachel, thank you for bringing this up!!!

    I love honesty but it's foolishly considered brutal...EXCEPT!: when people feel safe/comfortable/loved/accepted in the exchange. In those cases,

    "Would you like to come with us to the blah blah?"
    "Thank you for the invitation (because that really is appreciated, right?), but I don't think I'll join you."

    If that feels too cold, you could always add, "not this time" or "next time" as you suggested, but I really respect those who politely but honestly decline. The worst, and most freakin' common, is just no response. Anything is better than no response. And if someone can't handle a "thank you but no thank you," why would you want to spend time with this person?

    The way people respond to us has a lot to do with our self-confidence and how much we trust them/ourselves in the exchange.

  3. I go with honesty, which for me is - "I don't really like to leave the house, but if you want to come by some time, I can check our calendar". As for the calendar, appts available only on Saturdays as we spend Sundays sitting around doing nothing. We make random exceptions for people who have to travel.

    Beware the downside to this. If you refuse enough times, you will eventually stop being invited. I'm fine with this, but just something to consider.

    I have very few friends. Hmmm, come to think of it, perhaps none. That would be because I really don't like to leave the house and don't do it frequently, and when I do, I like to go with my husband. Once every 3 months I meet my sisters for brunch, and once every 3 years I visit my parents. Other than that, we're here, and anyone that wants to stop by is welcome.

    This is my life, I don't apologize for it :)

  4. I like Leah's suggestion, "thanks, but I don't think I'll join you this time."

    One reason it's hard to pull that off is others often have an expectation that you require a legitimate excuse and they have the right to judge its legitimacy. Even returning something to a store (within the proper time limits and all) "requires" an explanation: "Was their something wrong with it?"

    What is the point of this question? If you say it's too small, will they get you a bigger one? If you say it makes you look fat, will they give you a month of Jenny Craig for free? The burden of the return is shifted to the shopper, if he/she chooses to accept it.

    In the store example, it's easy to see how the clerk's gambit attempts to shift the dynamic. But a similar dynamic may be at play with any invitation, or for that matter, any question, which like the punctuation mark itself, comes with a potential hook. So if one feels forced to bite at every hook, some introspection may be helpful. Or as Jim suggests, you can become a doctor, but hopefully, in most cases, the introspection will get results more quickly with fewer sleepless nights.

  5. How about, "I'm way too lame to do that. But, if you're interested in going to the playground, I'm there."

    - Ruchir

  6. I simply go with the 'thanks, but not really keen on that idea, have fun though'. Ends it.
    If they really persist just add that 'it's not my scene at the moment, but be keen to get together for something else'. If you throw a date on that something else, it puts the onus on them to accept or come up with an excuse, ahahaha (evil laugh).

  7. Oh, and I occasionally throw out the 'I have absolutely nothing booked on that day and I'm really going to enjoy doing it'.

  8. I can be assertive, direct, blunt and plain rude anytime I want to. This is thanks to my ass being born outside of the US. I'll always have the excuse- "Well, he is foreign..."

  9. Thank you so much for all the great comments about how to say no when you feel this unbearable urge to say yes but don't want to. I agree, Leah, that "honesty is foolishly considered brutal." And it's very true that no response at all is the worst. Or 3-weeks-post event receiving: "Just getting through my Inbox...sorry I missed this." I'd like to do a little question-and-answer with Leah soon--she coined the term FOMO (fear of missing out), and that's another contributor to the unbearable urge to say yes when you should say no.

    Rhonda's response I've been thinking about all night. That's such a deliberate way to live. Refusing to be bandied about by others' demands, accepting the consequences, not apologizing. One question: When you say, "If you want to come by some time, I can check our calendar" do you mean that to sound inviting? To me it does not. It sounds like, "I'll accommodate you but it's nothing something I'd like to do."

    Hawkeye: Hilarious example re: returning stuff to the store because that was an issue I brought up with my therapist. I had something I'd been meaning to return to Staples for months, unopened, and just couldn't do it. A mom and pop store I could never do but in the case of Staples it was simply that I couldn't face that moment of conflict, the burden of the return, as you write.

    Ruch: That's great -- I think self-deprecating goes a long way. I'll try it!

    Cookie Monster -- maybe you can get away with keen better than me b/c you're in Australia --
    but I really like that. Dip it once and end it. It's straightforward, not rude. "Not my scene" is also really good. Also love the incredibly unapologetic -- not doing anything -- idea.

    Alex-- It's true you can be unbelievably blunt and strait lots of the time, but you're a closet neurotic.

    Checking out overseas med schools...

    Oh, and two ideas sent by email for getting out of things you don't want to do.

    "I can't, sorry! Another time?"

    "I'm flying to Dublin tomorrow morning."

    I was also warned about the danger of using something along the lines of "That's not really my thing" in response to, "We should hang out some time."


  11. I like to say "sorry but my hair is falling out of my head and into my ears, onto my back...I need to stay home to think of a solution. It's very difficult because I don't know if I'm coming or going. It's the hairy paradox, the hydroximoron, too much here and not enough there. You see, Rogaine is a foam but not a proper solution. I know I sound like I'm waxing philosophical but I'm really wigging out." It generally gets me out of doing things I don't like doing.

  12. What do you mean I'm a closet neurotic? Did someone say that?Did anyone say that? What are they saying? Who is saying it? When did they say that? What was their tone? Is someone mad at me? Why? How come? help me.....

  13. yeah ok, mostly I don't really want them to take me up on the offer to check my calendar. If I do, I phrase it nicer. But really, I just don't like people and want to be a hermit. I have enough people living in this house, I don't need to invite in extras!

  14. Peter -- what on earth do people respond to that? And are you a Peter I know, or just someone random with that name who coins funny but useful words like hydroximoron?

  15. Hello Rachel,

    "Peter--what on earth do people respond to that?" is the response I get.

  16. I felt similarly about work emails--I kept giving an excuse for not getting back to people. Recently I've tried to remind myself that I'M MY OWN BOSS, and can do whatever the hell I want when I want to. So I just say, "Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you." I've apologized...who cares if I didn't get back to them because I decided to take a nap yesterday?

    As for social plans, you have the best excuse in the book: Wally! Just say, "oh, I can't, because of Wally." Because don't really know what that means, but they'll accept it, because people with kids have a lot more shit on their schedules--whether that's being home so your coparent doesn't hate you for always been gone, or you can't afford a babysitter, or you have some sort of kid activity. I've also simply said to people, "We can't make it on Saturday, but are you free next week?" when I like them but don't want to go to their lameo concert/party/etc.

  17. Evie! I can't believe I didn't respond to this great response - and I think a 6.5 year gap deserves some kind of explanation - so I'll use the one you gave me...Wally! (& , starting in 2013, Petra!). I like your idea, too, of turning down subtly and offering another hangout idea instead. Wonder what you're up to these days...


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