There are few social interactions more panic-inducing than the moment a kind, friendly person invites you to do an activity or attend an event that you really don’t care to do but you also don’t have a “good” reason to say no. You know the reason is just “…nah,” but you are also a kind and friendly person, so you aren’t going to just say that. You have manners! And empathy! And—now, apparently—an obligation to go roller skating next Saturday with a bunch of strangers, even though you deeply don’t want to!
It can be difficult to say no to an invite when your reason boils down to “I just don’t want to,” because a lot of us don’t think of that as a valid excuse. Which is…kind of fucked up! Not wanting to do something optional and fairly low-stakes is a perfectly good reason to not do it! I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to live in a world where anyone lacking the “right” excuse is expected to participate in whatever activities other people deem important, their own needs and desires be damned. Which is why I feel so strongly that we all need to give ourselves permission to say no to this type of request more often.
Of course, there are times you should genuinely consider their invite, like if the person is a close friend or a pal who is inviting you to something that means a lot to them. Sometimes, having close relationships means doing things that aren’t really your idea of a good time. You should definitely give your friend’s improv show or housewarming party real consideration before you reflexively refuse. But I’m talking more about the instances in which it’s not a super close friend and/or the invite is relatively unremarkable…like, say, an invitation to attend a lecture or see a movie you’re not interested in, or to go out to dinner on a weeknight at a restaurant that’s across town and too pricey for your taste. In those situations—when you can technically go, but you just don’t want to—it’s actually OK to decline. Really!
The case for saying no
First of all, your time, money, and energy (TME) are your most valuable resources; how you choose to spend them is directly related to who you are and, ultimately, the life you want to live. And if you don’t decide how you want to spend your TME—and then protect those resources accordingly—other people will decide for you. You can’t really be your happiest, most authentic self if you regularly abdicate this responsibility.
Beyond that, I look at saying no to hangout requests as a gateway drug to setting boundaries in general. Realizing you have the right and the ability to say “no thanks” or “I’m not into that” without the world coming to an end is pretty life-changing. Do it a few times and you’ll begin to see that a cornucopia of possibility and freedom awaits! On the other hand, if you can’t tell a total stranger “oh, no thank you, I’d rather not” when they try to offer you a perfume sample at the mall or get you to sign their petition in the park, you’re probably not going to be comfortable telling a friend it’s time for a subject change when their “I hate my boss” monologue enters its third hour, or telling your parents you can only stay for a weekend—instead of their proposed 14 days—on your next trip home. It’s a good idea to practice saying no to the small(ish) low-stakes asks when they present themselves; over time, the bigger requests will begin to feel less daunting.
Saying no also gives you a chance to learn more about the people in your life, and how they treat you. Here’s the thing: anyone who refuses to take no for an answer with regard to the relatively minor requests probably isn’t great at respecting boundaries in general—which is helpful information to have! Because boundaries are about way more than just roller skating on a Saturday; they can also be about your bodily autonomy, your money, your belongings, and your privacy. And you might find that a person who reacts very badly to “Oh, thank you for the invite, but I’m actually not a big fan of roller skating” has problems taking no for an answer when it comes to the bigger stuff. If your people are guilt-tripping you, pressuring you to do something, or otherwise not “letting” you say no, that’s a Them Problem, not a You Problem. The people who are actually worthy of your time, money, and energy will take care to communicate that they respect your needs, preferences, and TME, even if they feel a little disappointed by your “no” in the moment.
Refusing an invitation early on also allows you to avoid the scenario in which you dread the event for weeks and ultimately cancel at the last minute. I have a lot of thoughts on canceling plans (tune into a future installment of A Little Better if you’d like to hear them!!!) but I think we can all agree that dreading an event for weeks is a bummer (and way more emotionally draining than just saying no in the first place!), and being canceled on at the last minute is pretty frustrating. Also frustrating: Hanging out with a person who doesn’t actually want to be there! If my options, as the inviter, are “be momentarily disappointed before finding a buddy who will enjoy the activity I’m proposing” and “spend *my* valuable TME hanging out with someone who doesn’t want to be here, and secretly—or not-so-secretly—resents me for it,” I’m going to choose the former every time! Agreeing to do something you really don’t want to do isn’t necessarily kind; it can actually be pretty selfish.
Speaking of selfish, when I’m feeling really guilty about the idea of saying no in these situations, I find it’s helpful to think about whether saying my no is really going to break this person’s heart, or if I just think my presence is way more important than it really is. It can be easy to tell yourself your attendance is a huge deal, or that this event means soooo much to this other person…only to say no and have them shrug and invite someone else without giving it a second thought. Of course, sometimes they really do care if you say yes! But even if they’re a little disappointed, they will likely understand and get over it—which is a fine outcome! Taking care of yourself a medium or big amount is more important than avoiding disappointing a friend a small amount. So before you begrudgingly agree to go, you may want to step back and ask yourself if you’re perhaps overestimating how much your attendance really matters to your friend.
Finally, remember that by declining, you are—whether it feels this way or not—actually showing up for the other person. Because when you graciously say no, you communicate, “This is a relationship where we are allowed to ask for what we want. This is a world in which we are allowed to ask for what we need.” If you can’t do this for yourself, do it for Future Them.
What to actually say
I know declining an invitation can feel stressful or guilt-inducing in the moment, but it doesn’t have to be that way! It just takes practice. The more you do it, the more you’ll realize that most people can actually handle it, and that it won’t negatively affect your relationships. If you need a little help formulating a response for these situations, below are some scripts based on conversations I’ve had in my own life to get you started. As always, you can/should tweak these so they feel right for the request and the relationship.
Regardless of what you say, your tone matters a lot; aim for warm, but relatively neutral and matter-of fact. And keep it short. There’s also no need to beg for forgiveness, get into all your boring personal reasons, or present an eight-part defense as though you’re ADA Alexandra Cabot in a Law & Order: SVU rerun. Treat saying no as normal (because it is normal).
If it’s date-specific, and you’d prefer to be doing Not This on the day/time in question:
“Oh, thank you so much for thinking of me! Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it, but thank you for the invitation!”
“Oh that sounds lovely, but I won’t be able to make it. But have a great time!”
If you’re probably never going to be up for doing an activity at the suggested day/time:
“Oh, that concert sounds really fun, but I can’t really do big outings on weeknights because of work! But have a great time!”
“Ah, that sounds lovely, but I have a rule that I don’t make plans on Sundays—it’s my day [to decompress and not talk to anyone][catch up with my parents][do all my chores and errands]. But thank you for thinking of me!”
“Oh, that sounds like a blast, but I’m pretty committed to my 10 p.m. sleep schedule on weeknights these days. But thank you for the invite!”
“Roller skating isn’t really my thing, so I’m going to sit this one out!”
“Thank you for thinking of me, but [music festivals/the beach/amusement parks] aren’t really my speed!”
You could also add something like, “But I’d love to see you and catch up soon! How about [some alternative programming that you both enjoy]?”
If you’re low on bandwidth and expect to be for the foreseeable future
“Ah, I’d love to [see you/catch up/hang out], but I haven’t been able to get much time for myself lately and I promised myself I’d just hunker down and have a quiet weekend!”
“I don’t really have the bandwidth for much socializing right now, but I would love to [do something else][in a couple days/weeks/months when you’d be up for it].”
“I don’t have much room for extracurriculars these days, but I would love to [do something else][at some date in the future when you’d be up for it].”
“Ah, that sounds [lovely/fun/amazing], but I haven’t been sleeping well lately and promised myself I’d stop going to so many [happy hours/pool parties/roller skating networking events] so I can establish a more consistent schedule.”
“I know I haven’t been able to come the last few times you’ve invited me, but it’s not because I don’t want to! [My schedule is just busy][I’m feeling broke[I can’t really do things on weeknights][In general, roller skating isn’t really my jam][I’ve been pretty depressed, honestly, so socializing is a bit of a struggle right now] But I hope the stars will align soon and I’ll be able to attend!”
Note: This last one is a good option when you’ve declined a couple invites from the same person and are concerned that they’ll think you’re cancelling because you just don’t want to hang out with them. In my experience, it’s way better to be honest and clear about why you’re declining invitations (more on that in a moment!), especially if they’re from close friends who would probably love to know a) how you’re doing, and b) that it’s not about them.
And by the way, you don’t have to offer an alternative hangout at some other future date in any of the above examples if you’d prefer not to! In that case, you can just say, “but thank you for the invitation” instead!
If you need a moment to compose yourself before you respond:
“Let me check my calendar and get back to you!”
(And then actually get back to them quickly—don’t wait for them to follow up!)
A note on making up excuses
I am, in general, against fabricating a reason when declining an invite. Here’s why: If you tell a lie that you can’t attend on that particular date (when it’s really about the activity itself), the person might respond by asking you to do this activity on a different day, which will put you in an awkward position. Or they might assume you actually love roller skating and want to be on the invite list for all future local roller skating events. This outcome is good for exactly no one!
Alternatively, if they somehow find out you didn’t actually have “real” plans (or the plans you claimed to have) that day, or they later discover that you do, in fact, like roller skating, they might actually feel worse—because they’ll assume it was personal, that you just didn’t want to hang out with them. (Which may or may not be true! But even if it is about them, you’re probably not trying to communicate that.)
When you’re simply a little bit more honest about the reason why you can’t make it, you communicate important information: I do, in fact, like you. But I don’t, in fact, like roller skating or weeknight hangouts. The honest response tells them that you trust them enough to be authentic and open with them, and that you care about them enough to build a relationship where you feel seen and known.
But also: refusing an invitation is not that deep! It’s literally fine.
By the way…
If we want to be allowed to say no, we have to be willing to extend that option to others. So remember: if someone declines your invitation, it’s really, really OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like you, or that they don’t want to be your friend. And, look, if someone only ever declines your invitations and you do start to suspect they don’t really want to be friends, that is another matter. But it also might mean they don’t want to be your friend! Which is disappointing and stings, but is also fine—because you don’t actually want to be friends with people who don’t want to be friends with you, or who don’t share any of your interests.
If you’re feeling bummed about the “no thank you,” remind yourself that declining an invite can leave a person feeling vulnerable, and requires courage—even from relatively assertive people. So they must feel pretty strongly about this. I’ve also found it helpful to view a “no” not as a slight, but as a favor—because, again, there is nothing worse than knowing someone was dreading spending time with you, or regretted investing their TME in something you wanted to do. They’re also doing you the favor of saying no now, instead of saying yes and then flaking on you. And they’re giving you permission to say no to them someday.
So if someone says, “I can’t make it,” let that be good enough. Trust that they have their reasons, respect their willingness to protect their TME, and move on. If someone says, “I don’t like roller skating,” believe that they simply don’t like roller skating. If someone says they are too busy, don’t judge them for spending the evening “doing nothing” instead. (Making the choice to do nothing, when you are otherwise busy, is a big deal!) If someone says they can’t afford to join you for dinner, don’t mentally catalogue all of the expensive shoes they own and the amount of $ 5 lattes you’ve seen them consume this week. Know that a “no” simply means “This is not how I want to spend my TME at this moment” and that even if it feels a little bad, it’s OK.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and a former senior editor at BuzzFeed. She is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself and Other People (The Experiment, Spring 2020). You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and read her blog here.
The content of each “A Little Better” column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.