How to say 'No, thank you'?

What is amusing now had to be taken in great earnest once Virginia Woolf

I've been talking this weekend with a much younger person about how to say “No, thanks,” to an invitation.

It's been interesting to see with fresh eyes how bafflingly difficult saying no can seem to be, if you are young enough not to have done it often – and how scary.

We talked first about the possibility of saying nothing at all – just ignoring the problem. But somebody else present (let's call her Daisy) remembered using that approach, years ago, after being invited by a man she didn't absolutely adore to a first date.

“It was a ball, in Cambridge. I didn't want to go. But I couldn't think of a good excuse, so I said yes. Because it was weeks away, and I could pretend to myself it wasn't happening. But I continued to not say anything until the day beforehand – by which time I was in a big panic. So I wrote him a letter saying, ‘I'm sorry I can't come because I'm organising a dinner tomorrow night for my boyfriend.'”


Remembering this, Daisy burst into embarrassed laughter and hid her face. “Oh no! I can't believe I did that!”

So saying nothing may not work. What to do instead?

Our young friend, Michael, seemed to worry most about the fact that he couldn't predict the response to his ‘No, thank you.' Would the person who invited him “go crazy”, as he feared?

I'm not sure, I said. What might “going crazy” even look like?

We practiced it a few times, with me as the other person. I noticed that when Michael said “No”, (or “I'm sorry, I can't…”) it was with an expression that looked sullen, resentful, or aggressive. It seemed quite likely that the receiver of this No might indeed take it badly. Could he do it another way?

He looked utterly stumped – literally unable to believe any other way was possible.

I suggested that we practice again – but this time with no words. Again, I played the person who made the original invitation. I put my hands together and held them out before me with a big smile, as if the invitation were a pile of jewels that I hoped my friend would accept.

Michael frowned at them, looking deeply troubled, and shook his head, as if I were holding out a dog turd instead of jewels.

Could he change his expression? His mood? Try to look delighted, instead, or honoured or moved by my offer?

He did this beautifully, then shook his head with something like sorrow and pointed to his chest, then pointed elsewhere. (I interpreted this to mean: I can't take this lovely pile of jewels, and they really do look lovely, thank you, because I've got a lovely pile of jewels already, somewhere else.)

Was there anything else that might relieve the pain of his No?

Again, it seemed incredibly difficult for Michael to think of anything, because he was so strongly caught up in the painful perspective that refusal was BAD, and MEAN.

Could I help? he asked.

Making it up on the spot, I said: your refusal is actually a gift. Because if you accept this invitation unwillingly, you are likely to be a miserable guest, and a dead weight on the occasion. Nobody wants you to be there on that basis. So by refusing, you're doing them a favour.

He didn't look entirely convinced.

I wondered if it might help him to remember this idea, that his No is a gift, if he were to follow it up with an actual gift – either a “thing” or an invitation to another event at another time.

He agreed to give this some thought. I look forward to finding out what his counter-offer will be – and whether it's accepted.