The Secret to Rejecting Someone Kindly Is Simpler Than You Think

I only wish I’d learned this earlier.
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Sophie Caldecott
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I only wish I’d learned this earlier.

Remember that super-awkward moment in Pride and Prejudice when the awful Mr. Collins corners Elizabeth Bennet and asks her (well, more like tells her) to marry him? She rejects him politely but firmly and then has to repeat that rejection at least four times before she can escape the room, but even then it’s clear he still hasn’t got the message. As she restates her rejection of him, it gets blunter and blunter, until she finally says, “My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer?” Now that I think about it, that’s got to be one of the most awkward fictional moments ever written.

Thankfully, the world is not full of men like Mr. Collins—in fact, quite the opposite. People like Mr. Collins are rare; it takes guts to express a romantic interest in someone, and most people have enough self-awareness and humility to know a rejection when they see one. That doesn’t mean that rejecting someone is ever easy, or free from awkwardness entirely, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.

I still cringe when I think about the first time I rejected a guy: I was an immature teenager, and needless to say it involved some evasive text messages and a couple of very awkward speedy exits from rooms (yes, I quite literally ran away from the situation). To a neutral observer, my behavior probably implied that this guy had proposed marriage Mr. Collins-style, when in reality all he had done was ask me on one date.

It didn’t feel good or right, but my approach to romantic rejections continued more or less as miserable variations on this theme for the next six or so years of my dating life. Sometimes, like Monica, Verily's relationship editor, I would find myself on what my friends and I dubbed “accidental dates” because I either didn’t realize that I had been asked out on a date in the first place, or because I just didn’t know how to turn a guy down kindly.

It wasn’t until I was on the receiving end of the most graceful and kind rejections of my life that I realized what I’d been getting wrong all that time. This impressive rejection taught me that the secret formula to a mature approach to relationships and casual dating is a lot simpler than I had realized: Be open and clear about your feelings, be kind and complimentary, and unless they really did just declare their undying love for you, don’t act as if they did.

So what exactly did this guy do that I found so revolutionary? Without a trace of awkwardness he thanked me, saying that he was hugely flattered because I was great, and then he said that he didn’t think of me as anything but a friend. The most striking thing about his rejection, though, was that he was true to his word and continued treating me like a friend afterwards, as if what had just happened wasn’t a big deal at all. His actions confirmed what he had just told me, making it easy for me to believe that he enjoyed my company and wanted to remain friends. His feelings were clear, but instead of feeling bad about myself I felt empowered; it was then that I realized that asking someone out doesn’t have to be a big deal after all—and perhaps more importantly—turning them down doesn't have to be a big deal either.

Casual dating done right can be a great way to find love, but only if you do it with a mature attitude, taking those early dates for what they are— opportunities to get to know someone better, to find out if you have chemistry, and to figure out if you want to embark on a relationship together. It’s so much easier to bounce back from a rejection and work up the courage for future dating opportunities if you’ve been made to feel like the other person truly respects you, even if they didn’t want to pursue a relationship with you.

As I knew all too well, when someone asks you out it’s easy to get super awkward about it if you don’t feel the same way. But, think about how you would like to be treated if the tables were turned and it doesn’t take long to realize that all anyone wants is to leave that conversation with their pride intact. The fastest way to hurt someone’s pride is to make them feel like a crazy stalker for asking you out. That’s why the time-honored advice not to be overly-apologetic when you reject someone is so wise: Most people don’t want to feel as though you feel sorry for them, they want to feel like you think they’re pretty awesome and are bound to find someone who would jump at the chance to date them really soon.

Of course, there may be times when someone expresses really strong feelings for you or has been feeling that way for a long time before they said anything about it. In those cases, giving them some space isn’t the same thing as running away; sometimes, it’s just the most thoughtful and kind thing to do. No matter how you feel about it, though, behaving awkwardly about it will only make things worse. If you act as if everything is normal they will be able to mirror your actions, and before long they may even be feeling that way, too.

To this day, the guy who taught me the best way to reject someone is a great friend. Who knew that a rejection could turn out to be such a blessing? I only wish I’d learned this secret earlier.

Photo Credit: Nima Salimi