Refusals are unavoidable; it’s simply impossible to say yes to every request, invitation, offer, and suggestion made to you. Because of how commonplace refusals are, learning the various strategies for making refusals in academic, professional, and social environments without appearing impolite is essential. Even more, the often exaggerated stereotype of English being a “direct” language means that many English language learners may be perceived as impolite or extremely rude because of blunt refusals such as no or I can’t, especially when said to people of higher social status.
Before moving on, can you think of other ways of saying no?
In addition to direct responses such as no and I can’t (which are appropriate in certain contexts), there is a variety of strategies to make refusals indirect, and speakers often use more than one strategy depending on the situation or the type of strategy used. Some of the strategies include the following:2
- Reason or explanation (But, the problem is that I have a class that meets that same time.)
- Alternatives (What if we meet Tuesday instead of Monday? I’ll be free then.)
- Wish (I wish I could, but…)
- Expression of regret or apology (I’m really sorry about that.)
- Promise of future acceptance (I’ll definitely participate next semester.)
- Postponement (Would you mind if I thought about that for a little bit?)
- Hedging (I’m not sure.)
- Request for clarification (Did you say next week?)
- Request for additional information (Could you tell me a little more about the job responsibilities?)
- Partial repeats of what was previously said (A: A few people are getting together on Thursday to study, if you’d like to come. B: Thursday?)
In addition to the above, there are several categories of expressions that can precede or follow refusals to soften them:
- Gratitude (Thanks so much for thinking of me, but…)
- Positive remarks (That’s a great idea, but…)
- Willingness (Normally, I’d love to, but…)
- Empathy (I know you’re in a tough situation right now, but…)
- Partial agreement (I see what you mean, but…)
- Fillers (Um/uh/well…)
Other Considerations for Making Refusals
During academic advising sessions, giving reasons or making alternatives are the two most common strategies used by English speakers when making a refusal.1
Refusals often last more than just one “turn,” and English language learners might end refusal sequences abruptly. 1, 9, 10 For example, a sequence for refusing an invitation to a birthday party may look like this:
Minji: Hey Chris, how was your weekend?
Chris: Hey Minji! It was good, and yours?
Minji: Oh good, nothing special.
Minji: Hey, so I’m turning 22 on Wednesday-
Chris: Oh nice!
Minji: Yeah, and I was planning on having a small party on Friday. I’m mostly inviting people from our group of friends, and it’d be great to get together one more time before the semester ends.
Chris: Oh, this Friday?
Minji: Yeah. Why?
Chris: Oh no. I’ve actually already bought a bus ticket for Friday. I’m heading home for my little sister’s graduation from elementary school.
Minji: No way! Oh man.
Chris: Yeah, and I’ll be leaving in the evening.
Minji: So you don’t think there’s any way you can, like-
Chris: Ah, I really wish I could. It’s been a long time since we last hung out.
Minji: No worries. Family first!
Suggestion to make plans-response
Chris: Are you busy next week? Maybe I can buy you lunch to make up for it!
Minji: Aw, that’s nice of you. Sure, let’s figure it out next week.
Minji: Well, I’m sorry you can’t come, but have fun at home with your sister. That’s exciting!
Chris: Thanks. Sorry again I can’t make it. Have a happy birthday!
Practice: Identify the Refusal
Look at the following refusals. What is the primary strategy used in each?
1. I know you’ve been working really hard, but I just don’t have any time to help you right now. (Empathy)
2. How about we go to the cafe closer to the park instead? (Alternative)
3. I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to make it. (Apology)
4. I don’t know. (Hedging)
5. I’ll definitely try it next week. (Promise of future acceptance)
Scenarios for Practice
Use the above strategies to respond appropriately in the following situations. Once you feel comfortable doing so, try incorporating two strategies into one refusal.
1. One of your professors recommends you take her class in the fall, but you have already signed up for an elective course that conflicts with her class.
Willingness and postponement: Hm, well, I’ll definitely think about it. Let me check my academic schedule, and I’ll let you know.
Wish and reason: Oh, I really wish I could, but I’ve already signed up for a class that I’m really interested in.
Gratitude and question: Thanks for recommending that to me, but I’m not sure it’ll work with my schedule. Could you tell me a little bit about it, anyway?
2. Your friend asks if you want to go with her to a concert, but you don’t really like the band’s music.
Positive remark and postponement: That sounds like so much fun. I’ll definitely go next time!
Hedging and indefinite response: I’m not sure. I may be able to.
Gratitude and reason: Thanks for the invitation, but I’ve already made some plans that evening.
3. A classmate offers to help you carry some books, but you are fine carrying them yourself.
Gratitude: Thanks, but I’m ok!
Positive remark: How nice of you. I think I can carry them, though.
Shifting the responsibility away from the listener: Oh, they’re really not that heavy. Don’t worry about it.
4. A coworker sees that you’re tired and suggests having a cup of coffee, but you avoid caffeine.
Alternative: I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but maybe I should get to bed early tonight.
Partial agreement: I know most people would grab a cup if they felt like I do!
Postponement: Yeah, maybe later today I will.
5. Your boss asks if you would like to join a company happy hour get-together, but you’ve already made plans with some friends.
Filler, Reason, and Gratitude: Oh, um, you know what? I’ve already got something going on tonight, but thanks so much for inviting me!
Positive remark and future acceptance: That sounds like so much fun! I can’t tonight, but I’ll be at the next one!
Hedging: I’ll think about it!
6. You’re working on a class project with a peer. Your peer has been having problems at home and asks if you can take one of her sections of the project. However, you’re already doing most of the work and don’t have spare time.
Empathy and reason: I know you’ve got a lot going on, but I’ve got zero time to add more work on my end.
Request for clarification and additional information: Did you say that section on finance law? You have the chapters on that information, right?
Partial repeat of what was previously said: The section on finance law? I’m already doing so much, sorry.
For a full list of references used cited in the “Appropriate Communication” sections, click here.