Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
Q. How can I nicely say no to requests for my time or money?
A. Until recently, I couldn’t have told you. I thought of myself as the sort of person who helps others whenever possible—who volunteers at the school, gives job advice to college students, and makes dinner for the couple with the new baby. As a result, I was totally stressed. The madness ended only when I glanced in a mirror and saw the reflection of a woman with wild eyes and what looked like a mop of electrocuted cowlicks.
At that moment, I realized that saying yes-yes-yes was creating big problems (even worse than bad hair). I was tired. I was cutting corners. And I was beginning to resent the people I was supposed to be helping.
To start saying no, I had to get past the emotional reasons—the fear of seeming rude, the desire to be a team player, guilt—that had compelled me to say yes. I reminded myself of how valuable my time was, and how much happier I and my loved ones would be if I weren’t so overtaxed. Then I developed an arsenal of things to say when I wished to decline, no matter who was doing the asking. Here’s a sampler.
To the nice lady at the front door who’s holding a clipboard: “Sorry, this is a bad time. But if you leave a pamphlet, I’ll be happy to educate myself about your cause.”
To the PTA president who wants you to run the next bake sale: “Agnes, I just can’t take on such a big job right now. But you can count on me to donate a batch of cupcakes!”
To your friend or relative who wants to borrow $100: “There’s a good reason that banks lend money as a business. When a personal relationship turns into a financial transaction, things get messy—and I don’t want that to happen to us.”
To the neighbor who asks you to water her plants while she’s out of town: “Laurie, I have a brown thumb—the opposite of green. Entrusting your plants to me is ensuring a certain fate.”
To your mother-in-law who wants to invite her third cousin twice removed to your daughter’s wedding: “I’m afraid I used up my influence with the bride by pressuring her to invite all my friends and distant relatives.”
To someone who wants to network with a friend of yours: “I don’t feel comfortable giving out her contact information without permission, but I’ll pass yours along to her.”
To your kid who wants a third cookie: “No, sweetie. I love you too much to let you fill up on sugar instead of the balanced diet that will enable you to grow up strong and healthy. Here’s a carrot.”
To your dog who is begging for table scraps: “Hey, why don’t we take a walk instead, big guy?”