One writer shares the lie she tells repeatedly, and why she refuses to apologize for it.

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Credit: Anne Bentley

“I wish I could!” It’s my go-to response when turning down an invitation, but it’s not exactly true.

Well, sometimes it is. For example, if you’re having people over to feed your baby goats, but I have to go out of town for work that day, I really do wish I could come to your farm. I’d rather do that than just about anything.

But if you’ve invited me to a sports-themed gathering or told me about an upcoming three-hour budget meeting, “I wish I could” is a lie. It’s a lie of omission, though, which is better than a regular lie. In a lie of omission, two people just assume different things about what’s left unsaid.

When you hear “I wish I could,” your imagination might automatically complete my response as “I wish I could go to your makeup party/documentary screening/child’s talent show.” If that’s what you understand me to be saying, great. I may not want to go to your pottery exhibit (I really don’t), but I don’t want to make you sad either. So this works for both of us.

If I’m being honest about how that sentence really ends, most of the time it means “I wish I could please you by doing the thing you’re asking me to do; however, I’m not going to do it.” I’d love to say I’m a reformed people pleaser, but I’m only reformed enough to say no to your charity auction (and send a check, of course—it’s a good cause!), not reformed enough to be explicitly clear and say, “I’d rather eat glass than attend a fundraiser on a Friday.” I admit it: I like being liked. Who doesn’t?

It made me happy that, when a friend asked last week, “Come try my hot yoga class tomorrow?” and I answered, “I wish I could!,” she walked away smiling. Plus, who knows? Maybe I’ll be in the mood for hot yoga next time. Probably not, but I’ve left the window open for her to ask me again. All sorts of possibilities lie ahead of us.

It’s possible, for instance, that I might ask her to brunch sometime and she won’t want to go—because she prefers sleeping in or she’s had enough socializing lately or she just hates mimosas. When she says, “I wish I could,” and lets her voice trail off at just the right moment, I won’t ask her to clarify.

Have I ruined my fallback phrase by spilling the truth here? Nah. I’ll keep saying it with zero apologies, and maybe now you will too, and we’ll all give one another this graceful way out. We can grant each other kindness without enjoying all the same things—even if we wish we could.

Mary Laura Philpott is the author of the memoir-in-essays I Miss You When I Blink ($16;