Skip to main content

Ah, spring. That lovely time of year when the sun comes out, the flowers bloom, it’s safe to leave the house without a parka, and social life comes knocking with a vengeance.

As much as it’s a relief to be rid of the cold and inconvenience of winter, most of us experience a bit of a welcome lull in our calendars after Christmas. With the advent of spring arrives a wave of obligations: volunteer opportunities, school events, weddings, potlucks, and charity functions seem to come clamoring from every direction, not to mention the unavoidable claims of yard work and spring cleaning. I find that at this time of year the smell of hyacinth and sunshine goes to my head and I find myself saying yes to a few too many noble causes—leading to stress, frustration, and burnout as I try to juggle all my new responsibilities.

The clear solution to my overcommitment problem is to say no to some things. But it’s hard to be firm without sounding harsh, and making excuses too often turns into resigned acceptance, especially when I would truly love to take everything on. What’s a woman to do?

Luckily, Miss Manners is here to help. In her essential and hilarious volume of etiquette, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Miss Manners (the pen name of author and etiquette expert Judith Martin) lays out some excellent tools for gracefully and effectively saying no that we can all benefit from.

Tool #1: Silence

Too often, when called upon to commit to something that I don’t want to do or don’t have time for, I find myself running off at the mouth, offering the asker a laundry list of excuses in an attempt to justify my refusal. It’s important to realize that, when turning down an engagement or opportunity, excuses simply aren’t necessary, and in fact listing them can make you feel so guilty about saying no that you say yes anyway.

Part of the reason many of us make excuses for refusing an obligation is that we don’t feel confident in our answer. Miss Manners’ advice reassures us that allowing ourselves to say no without offering a myriad of excuses is not rude. In a chapter entitled "Saying No: Silence as a Social Skill," Miss Manners lays out some good rules for handling difficult or pressing requests with class:

All [the correct answers] require, to be both gracious and effective, is that one close one’s mouth after saying them and not continue talking. The correct "Oh, I’m so terribly sorry, I just can’t." Got that? In most cases, it is simply enough. However, if anyone asks why not, the correct answer is “Because I’m afraid it’s just impossible.”

The hardest part of this is enduring the silence after offering your refusal. Miss Manners has the solution:

Many people … fill [the silence] by running off at the mouth ... They would do well to practice shutting up. It is a social grace few can afford to be without. In the mean time, Miss Manners has an exercise for intermediate students. They may say, “I have to check with my husband (wife, broker, boss, dog’s baby-sitter, house plants)” and then call back later and try again to give the correct answer.

Now, many people feel that you aren’t allowed to “get out” of something they want you to do unless you have a good excuse, and simple, polite, guilt-free refusals may confuse them. In the quotation above, Miss Manners reminds you that you are allowed to soften the blow of “no” by stepping away from the conversation and coming back later to deliver your answer. Once you’ve practiced this a few times, offering a polite refusal without accompanying excuses (and guilt) will become second nature.

Tool #2: Persistence

Saying no once can seem hard enough, but what if the person asking you won’t give up easily? If repeatedly asked for something that you are unwilling or unable to give (time, attention, money, etc.) it can be difficult to know how to stick to your guns. In response to a reader's question asking how to tactfully decline communication with someone, Miss Manners writes,

Saying no to [contact] is like saying no to unwanted food, drink, or romantic attention. You just have to keep saying it, firmly and politely, until people stop pressing it on you.

This tool applies equally well to charity dinner invitations, bake-sale fundraisers, or repeated requests to join timeshares in Louisiana. When faced with a persistent request, all that is required to prevail is a little light-hearted persistence of your own, backed up by the realization that you do not have to say yes to something you do not want to do. So many of us believe that the polite thing to do is say "yes," when in fact saying "no" can be equally polite while allowing us to maintain personal integrity.

Tool #3: The Spontaneous Refusal

"Hey, we’re going for drinks and we have one spot left in the car, wanna come or not?"

"There’s a school potluck this weekend and we really need volunteers, it won’t take more than a few hours and your children can help! Shall I put you down for 2 pm?"

"I know you said you made plans this weekend but we really need someone to stay late and close tomorrow. You don’t mind just this once, do you?"

"Can you come help me move tomorrow? I only have the truck until 6."

While all of these requests may seem reasonable on paper, I know I’ve done my share of teeth-grinding when they get dropped on me in real life. Part of the frustration comes from the last-minute nature of these situations—it’s hard to say no to something that seems urgent. The key to saying no to the spontaneous request is to distinguish what is urgent from what is important. Your mental health, family and personal relationships, life goals, and spiritual life are important. Potlucks, abrupt schedule changes, and last-minute dinner invitations, while often billed as urgent, are rarely important and should be accepted based on preference, not pressure. Miss Manners offers a neat solution:

[Miss Manners] also urges you to use the spontaneous refusal, which is the appropriate response to the spontaneous invitation. It goes something like this: “Oh, we would have adored to see you and Uncle Fred - isn’t it rotten luck that the one time you were free is the time we simply can’t? Promise that next time you’re planning to come you’ll remember to put us on the top of your advance notice list!”

What I love about the above answer is that not only does Miss Manners express affection while sticking to her guns and without offering lots of excuses (using Tools 1 and 2), she also offers a clear expectation for future interactions: that more advance notice be given in order to secure a "yes" instead of a no. It should be noted that Miss Manners does not recommend setting up a different obligation in order to get out of the spontaneous visit—remember, you do not need to say yes to one thing in order to be justified in saying no to a different one. (This is obvious upon reflection, but also strangely groundbreaking.)

Now, obviously, Miss Manners doesn’t advocate that everyone should say no to everything. But we are limited beings with a finite amount of time. It is all too easy to get busy with events and obligations that, on paper, "won’t take much time," only to find that you suddenly have no time for priorities that really matter to you and your loved ones. If we follow Miss Manners’ advice for judiciously saying no to things that distract or exhaust, we free ourselves to say yes to those things that are truly essential to our well-being, like spending time with family or close friends, pursuing personal creative work, or just sitting still and enjoying a spring afternoon.