Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
How Do You Politely Say No?
Q. How do you say no to people who want too much of your time?
Candler, North Carolina
A. Different Time Suckers require different techniques. For those on-the-spot encounters (you see someone on the street or at the store who wants to catch up on the last five years), I recommend swiftly saying, “Sorry, I have somewhere to be!” or “I’m running late―talk soon!” If you’re in that deadly zone where you’ve already stood there long enough to allow this particular Time Sucker to launch into an epic tale, remember―it’s never too late to cut the conversation short. Just dive in and say you desperately want to hear the rest of this story, but you just realized how late it is and that you have to run. And then run.
When confronted with the more formal―and persistent―Time Requester (you know, the person who always suggests, “Come join my book club” or “Let’s work out at the gym together”), the sooner you decline, the better. When a neighbor recently invited me out for lunch, I stuttered something about getting back to her and then put her off every time she brought it up. I realized later that it would have been less hurtful if I had simply laid out my policy up front: I have such a hectic schedule that I can’t meet anyone for lunch.
That’s right. I have a policy. I learned to have one from a friend who, after having her third child, made her new practice known: She will not meet friends for dinner because she doesn’t want to miss tucking in her kids at night. And while I miss our dinners, knowing it’s not about me certainly helps, and we’ve found other ways to stay connected.
The key is being straightforward. “Sorry, I don’t have time for book clubs” or “I exercise only at home” may sound harsh at first, but I’ve found that it’s better to pre-sent it as standard procedure rather than as an individualized rejection. Everyone saves face, and you don’t have to speed-read Love in the Time of Cholera or meet up for that 90-minute Spinning class.
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