The Lost Art of Declining Politely

Ours is the magazine of “getting out of things.” We tend to focus on big things like jobs, but I sometimes think about adjusting the microscope to talk about escaping micro-commitments like parties you don’t want to go to.

I usually bin this idea because, really, it comes down to: just say no — politely.

An item in today’s Guardian confirms this decision but also made me think a little further about why so many of us have trouble saying no.

Maybe it’s because you don’t want to damage a relationship. But if a relationship is so fragile that it could break when you don’t want to go dancing, is it really a relationship worth preserving at such costs?

Maybe the fear of saying no is to save your own reputation. You don’t want to be seen as a bad sport or a wrecker or no fun. Not going to the party would be bad press for yourself.

I think the real reason, however, is a sort of projection. It’s our own fear of rejection (combined with decent human empathy) that is to blame. Because we don’t like be rejected, we couldn’t possibly reject another.

So that’s where the work needs to happen. If you don’t like to say no, you might need to work on your own fears.

At the risk of being mildly indiscrete, I think I learned the art of saying “no” from our own Tom Hodgkinson. When he asked me to write a column for the Idler in 2016, I giddily sent him my first try. “This is not what I had in mind,” he said, “This is more of a diary piece.” He explained what he was looking for and I got on with it.

It wasn’t the answer I wanted but at no point did I question Tom’s authority (or natural right) to say no. Since then, I’ve not struggled to reject New Escapologist submissions I didn’t care for. And when I politely declined an early cover design for Stern Plastic Owl, the designer thanked me for my clarity and we got on with doing the right thing instead.

That Guardian article does not encourage people to decline honestly or politely: it encourages us to wuss out and to tell white lies. This comes at a cost to our character and it disrespects people.

One of the things people struggle with, for example, is saying no to charity workers on the street. The article suggests we tell them that we already donate to another charity so as to “validate their cause and therefore their endeavour.” They know you might be lying, apparently, “but they also know why, so the exchange ends up being quite pleasant.”

I think not. Just because you’re afraid of rejection doesn’t mean they are. Respect them by being honest. Don’t waste their time. Let them go free to find success with a less stingy pedestrian. Here’s how to handle a chugger: don’t break your stride, smile kindly, and (at most) say “no thanks, sorry.” But always smiling. And always walking.

The same goes, basically, for any other request you don’t want to indulge. Decline politely, with clarity and honesty, and don’t stop.


Find more wisdom on getting out of things in New Escapologist Issue 15 (due this week!)


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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