Is it Rude to Say No?

I’m running across something that is making me squirm a little bit. It seems that we have messed up badly in teaching the younger generation (and goodness knows my generation has its own issues) about an aspect of manners that is going to make it really hard on them.

There is this huge frustration I am seeing in the 18-24 crowd because they seem to have been taught that the act of saying no is aggressive and shows bad manners.

I am not a paragon of good manners. I was taught them and I do not always practice them. Not the fault of my teachers *grin* but a personal failing that I recognize.


Good manners is a great tool for setting boundaries. It’s bad manners to answer the phone during a meal because you’re supposed to put your attention on the people present. It’s bad manners to use mealtime to hold someone captive for a harangue because it is supposed to be time to interact pleasantly. Yes, parents using mealtime to yell at you for bad grades was bad manners. They’re supposed to call you on the carpet for that at another time. Indeed, the expression comes from the idea that you’d be standing on the carpet in your father’s study to be scolded. NOT in the dining room. (Dad didn’t have a study. I got scolded in my bedroom)

Let’s take the invitation. Good manners requires that you ANSWER the invite. It does not require you to say yes. If you want to/are able to go, you say, “Yes, thank you!” The no does require a few more words. You have to thank ’em for asking. Then you say you’re sorry you can’t come. You may volunteer a reason if you really want to, but you’re not required to, and the host is not supposed to ask for a reason.

All right, what about hugging. It’s bad manners not to want to hug someone, right?

As a matter of fact, indiscriminately wrapping your arms around people is not only horrible manners, Miss Manners herself would describe it as assault. Offering is okay, sure. But refusing the hug is perfectly fine manners. I don’t much like hugging strangers, myself. I stick my hand out to create some space and make it obvious that the touching I am okay with is a handshake. Good control of facial expression, especially around the eyes, can make this kindly and warm.

LOL. If I had my way, we’d move to the Asian greetings that don’t require touching strangers, but that’s not current North American etiquette.

Good manners was never meant to get people to knuckle under to poor behavior. The point of good manners is to help people get along. Part of getting along is having a way for people to say no to things gracefully. But good manners doesn’t even require that you sweeten a no. Good manners does not require that you answer the door every time someone knocks. It does not require that you answer the phone on every ring. It does not require that you respond to every request for money, nor does it require that you say yes to every invitation.

In fact, in Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, she says, “In fact, etiquette has no such requirement. The mistake arises from the fact that it does recognize that one has duties toward others, which is why it will not put up with such duty-dodging attempts as “Why should I thank Grandma for the check just because she wants me to?” And it does require being polite to others, even when they are no role models themselves.

“But that is a far cry from declaring that courtesy means taking everybody else’s orders.”

I know people tend either to love or hate Miss Manners, but I adore her. She’s no doormat and has an utterly wicked sense of humor. One of the things she cautions about in the chapter on saying no politely is that people usually get themselves in trouble when they try to explain themselves saying no.

So, for what it is worth, yes, one should learn to say no, and do so politely. That usually consists of a “No, thank you.” or some such then shutting ones mouth. She encourages a warm and regretful smile and possibly that’s not a bad idea. And the non-verbal “no” that is common in many cultures? No US culture (nope not even the South) requires it, so we’re off the hook for this.

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