A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing we all ought to know is how to say “no.”
Let’s start out with a semi-obvious point: we are living in an age of “yes.” In almost every aspect of our lives, we are encouraged to say “yes” to things — say yes to the new job, say yes to the sports activity, say yes to travel, say yes to the service opportunity, say yes to the new house, say yes to the student loan, say yes to… etc. And we are encouraged to say yes all these times because, we are told, opportunity only knocks once, or we need the credit, or we owe it to our community, or we owe it to ourselves.
Sometimes, these voices of encouragement are right. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes we should say no.
The Psychology and Philosophy of “No”
A lot of us find it very hard to say “no” when directly asked to do something by another person, so that’s the first hurdle to cross for most people. I personally do not like to say “no.” I always feel a bit of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) whenever I decline an invitation to an event, for example. And I always feel a little guilty if someone asks me for help and I refuse.
So the first step to saying “no” is to develop what I would term a sense of rational self-value. This is to say that you have needs and wishes that deserve some degree of prioritization, while at the same time acknowledging that they may or may not be as important as the needs and wishes of others, depending on the circumstances.
An extreme example is helpful in this case: someone saying, “Please help me up,” is probably less likely to get me off the couch if they’re a healthy 20-something who’s drunkenly fallen into a bean-bag chair, than if they’re tied to a railroad track and the train is about to come through. One situation is likely more deserving of my time and assistance than the other. Which is to say that someone exercising rational self-value is juggling a few different priorities, including the perceived need of the other, perceived need of the self, and variables between the two.
That’s another article all on its own, but the core point is that we should value our lives and time at least as much as we value other people’s lives and time, and use this as a baseline for determining which requests we should accept and which we can refuse.
When We Should Say “No”
There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule book here; I can’t tell you when you should absolutely refuse a request or proposition. I can offer my opinion on some general situations, and that’s all, so take this with a grain of salt. I would say “no” when:
- The risks outweigh the benefits — There are times when it just doesn’t make sense to say yes, because saying yes would be dangerous. Like if someone invites you to start CrossFit on your 80th birthday, or when you’re offered a job with 70-hour work week expectations right after you’ve had a child.
- The costs outweigh the benefits — There are times when it just doesn’t make sense to say yes, because saying yes involves more of your time, resources, or energy than you are comfortable giving or than you receive in turn. Like if someone invites you to a company picnic, but only if you fix all the food, or when the casino offers you a complimentary suite, but only if you lose $10,000 at the gaming tables.¹
- There is no obligation — There are limits to what one should agree to do without obligation, and charity only goes so far. If you have no particular reason to do a thing, you aren’t obligated to it, and you don’t want to do it, why would you do it? Like if a casual acquaintance asks you to dog-sit their incontinent Doberman while they go to Hawaii for a week; that’s something that only friends, family, and significant others get to ask, and everyone else can take a hike.²
- You need a break — Unless you are particularly obligated to do a thing, there should come a time in all of our lives when we say “no” simply because we need sleep, or a rest day, or a chance to binge-watch Netflix and eat ice cream. There’s a fine line between “needing a break” and “being lazy,” but we do need the occasional break… if we want to stay sane, anyway.
Knowing when to say “no” is a core component of being an adult; not everyone gets a “yes” from us, and discerning who does and does not get that “yes” is how we pick jobs, friends, partners, and life events. We shouldn’t say “yes” all the time, any more than we should say “no” to everything. It is always worth thinking about a request or proposition before you say “yes.” And if we can’t give the “yes,” then, well…
How to Say “No”
There are three kinds of “no”:
- No thank you (formal)³
- Nah (informal)⁴
- Hell no (scathing)⁵
These are in descending order of politeness and formality, in ascending order of likelihood to cause trouble, and there are different use cases for each.
“No thank you” is what you say to people whom you value and in whose good graces you wish to remain. This form is usually accompanied by an excuse or explanation, for the purpose of ensuring that the other person knows you’re not just casually disregarding their request or offer. We’ll get to casual disregard in a minute; for now, sufficed to say that people you value should not be treated casually when saying “no.”
“No thank you”-style statements should be couched in polite language, and delivered in a calm or apologetic tone of voice (depending on whether you want to appear deliberate or regretful). In general, I would use the calm tone for business or formal dealings, and the apologetic tone for requests for personal favors. The apologetic version is typically some variant of, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”
The excuse or explanation for a “no thank you” statement should be concise but comprehensive, explaining why you can’t do a thing without dwelling on it. Two sentences is about right. I find it wise to have a longer explanation prepared in case the other person presses the point, but to lead with a shorter explanation that will allow both parties to save face. A concise explanation doesn’t make you look like a whiner, and gives the other person the option of simply ending the exchange with a similarly short rejoinder.
“Nah” responses are used to deny casual requests from acquaintances who are not friends, offers you know are made with the intended option of refusal, and insincere business propositions. Examples might include an invitation to lunch by an acquaintance at the office, an informal offer to hang out from a friend, and anything offered to you by a telemarketer.
A “nah” does not require an explanation but isn’t too brusque either. It’s the middle range in terms of emotional investment. “Nah” can still be polite, but it doesn’t have to be as polite as “no thank you.” At the same time it shouldn’t be outright rude.
Saying no with a “nah” is a casual disregard for an option — a brush-off response — and should only be used in situations where a brush-off is ok or unlikely to cause offense (assuming that you don’t want to cause offense, of course — more on that in a second). Saying “nah” when you should say “no thank you” is a good way to cause offense, so pick your “nah” situations wisely. Many a marriage has ended, and more than one family vendetta has begun, due to a misplaced “nah” that should have been a “no thank you.”
“Hell no” statements are a whole other beast, and are used to express not just a negative response, but also contempt. Saying “hell no” is how you shut a request all the way down, usually while offering an insult in the process. It’s a good idea to be careful when you use “hell no” statements, because people often do not respond well to insults. Strange but true.
That being said, there is a time and a place to say “hell no,” and it is when you absolutely, positively, no-kidding do not want to even give the impression that you want to do something. “Hell no” is for when you not only don’t want to do a thing, you don’t want someone to ask you to do that thing ever again.
Odds are, though, that if you say “hell no” too often, you simply won’t have anyone left in your life who wants you to do things ever again. So, you know, use with caution. Pick the bridges you want to burn with care and attention to detail.
Saying “No” in a “Yes” World
To sum up, there are different times and different ways in which we say “no,” and I think it’s instructive and important to bear them in mind as we go through our lives. The world throws a lot at us. We are encouraged to be empowered, enlightened, globe-trotting polymaths. I encourage you to be an empowered, enlightened, globe-trotting polymath — and moreover I expect you to be good at it.
But that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to burn out, or live a super-stressful life. We deserve time for ourselves. We deserve good mental health. We deserve to have the right of self-determination. And we don’t get any of those things if we can’t say “no.”
So say “no,” my friends, at least from time to time. And keep some of that time, energy, and sanity for yourselves.
¹There is a subsection for this bullet, and it’s called “being taken advantage of.” Never agree to do other people’s work without a damn good reason, and never let someone use the lure of benefits in the future to extract too much work in the present. Expect to be compensated for your efforts, and when necessary let other people know that you hold that expectation.
²And even so, there are limits. Incontinent dog care requires a close family connection, in my humble opinion.
³Other versions might include, but are not limited to: thank you but no, I’m sorry but I can’t, I appreciate the offer but I’d really rather not, this isn’t a good time for me, I’d appreciate it if you could find someone else, thanks but I’m not interested in that at this time, etc.
⁴Other versions might include, but are not limited to: nah I’m good, nope, nuh-uh, no thanks, I’m kinda busy, I’m really busy, can’t do that tonight/day, can I take a rain check, etc.
⁵Other versions might include, but are not limited to: fuck no, absolutely not, shit no, you gotta be kidding me, are you high, no way in hell, get real, and (of course) go fuck yourself.