Miss Manners’ guide to turning down requests

I’ve always loved the etiquette expert Miss Manners. In recent months, she’s been writing fascinating answers to pandemic-related questions (such as this one on “mask-shaming”). Miss Manners is clear without being rigid. She says that etiquette is not about arcane rules or shaming others who don’t know the rules. Rather, it’s the opposite — being kind and considerate of others, without allowing them to run roughshod over you. She is absolutely clear about boundaries.

Miss Manners offers wonderful counsel on saying no to invitations. Her stock answer is,Thank you so much, but I just can’t.” (See here ) She says you don’t need to give a long explanation. 

Her advice applies not simply to social invitations, but to all kinds of requests for your time–these may be heating up as fall begins. What I like about Miss Manners’ approach is that she takes the emotion out of it. The work is to get clear about what you want and don’t want, what you can and can’t do, and communicate this without apology or defensiveness. She also is a champion of resisting the manipulations of others.

I recognize that there are many pressures from parishioners to spend your time in certain ways. In addition, you  may see strategic reasons to say yes to a request from a key lay leader, or your denominational exec/bishop or to make a fuller case for your need to say no.

For most requests that come your way, you can give a brief response without a long explanation. You don’t need to outline your schedule in detail to a parishioner or colleague. You might add, “I just can’t this week…” or “I just can’t this month…” Or when asked to book the sixth Zoom meeting on a day, “My schedule is full that day.” (It doesn’t matter that you actually have an hour free. You need that hour to rest your eyes and your brain.) Resist adding a paragraph about how busy or overwhelmed you are. It won’t help you or them.

In the day to day managing of your schedule through these intense days, try practicing a simple, “Thank you so much, but I just can’t,” at least once this week.

What’s your biggest challenge in saying no to requests?

5 replies on “Miss Manners’ guide to turning down requests

  • Florence Brooks

    Just tracked this down to revisit it. I really admire this way of thinking. Thank you!

  • Lorna Hecht-Zablow

    I like the plan to avoid lengthy explanations, especially when I apologize for, for example, running late. A simple, “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting,” is sufficient. But when declining requests, I don’t love the “I can’t” if it’s not true, yet, “No thanks, I don’t want to,” doesn’t exactly grease the wheels of civility. Thoughts?

    • Margaret Marcuson

      Good question, Lorna! “I can’t” could be true in the sense that I can’t say yes to this and be true to all my other priorities (including myself). I don’t think we necessarily owe others an explanation of those priorities.

    • Margaret Marcuson

      I find I need to remind myself of these things again and again!


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