How to Be a Grownup: Miss Manners on Saying “No”

I’ve always loved Miss Manners, ever since college, when my friend Joel Derfner declared himself a fan.

“Really, Miss Manners?” I asked.

“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “She’s really quite witty, and she has excellent advice. For example, she says that if someone points out some flaw, like a hideous mole on your face, you should say, How very kind of you to notice. And if someone totally overshares with you, then you should say, How nice for you. Isn’t that great?!” 

I wasn’t sure about these methods, until a few weeks later when a classmate came up breathless to me in the dining hall:

“Guess What? I’M ON THE PILL!!” she announced — and very loudly, I might add.

Although flabbergasted by this announcement, I was still able to stammer out a response:

“How nice for you.”

Then I saw Miss Manners’ genius.

One of my absolute favorite pieces of Miss Manners’ writing is when she explains how to say “no.”

Here’s the text, excerpted from Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior:

The ability to say no politely is an essential social skill. All that is really needed is the ability to repeat “No, thank you,” interspersed with such small politenesses as “I’m so sorry” and “You’re kind to ask” and “I wish you luck.”

Elaborating is what gets people into trouble. Excuses that are false are traps one sets for oneself, but even true excuses encourage the audacious to argue: “Can’t you do that another night?” “One little piece of cake isn’t going to kill you.” “But this helps more people.”

Yet most people can’t help blabbing on to soften  the “no,” which is apt to be so softened as to give way. So here is a small sample of supplementary sentences:

“I’m afraid I’m not taking on anything else right now.”

“Sorry, I never discuss my finances.”

“I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I’m not going to have any.”

“We never go to balls, but we’d love to see you privately.”

“I’m so sorry, but that’s not something I can help you with.”

“If you care to send me written material, I’ll get in touch if I find it interests me.”

“I didn’t realize what this involved, and I think I’d better bow out.”

And the ultimately correct, no-excuses refusal:

Dr. Peony Wilson

regrets that she is unable to accept

the exceedingly kind invitation of

Mr. and Mrs. Popinjay

for Saturday, the first of June

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