Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


how to politely say no
June 30, 2011 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Someone that I have a professional relationship with just asked for a personal favor that implied they see me as more of a friend. How do I politely explain that I'd like to keep things professional only?

For the past year or so I've been getting my eyebrows threaded by a woman in my town. For a while she worked at a booth at the mall, but she recently had a second child and now works out of her apartment or from her family's convenience store. I realize that it seems a little unorthodox to get your eyebrows done where you buy your gas, but she's amazingly talented at what she does.

Our routine now is that I give her a call when I want to come by and we work out those details. So, she has my number in her phone. I just received a phone call from her, asking what I was doing this weekend and if I could take her to get her hair cut and maybe shopping. At first I thought she had me mixed up with someone else from her phone list, but confirmed that she didn't. I really don't know her that well, aside from chatting with her for a few minutes each month. I know that she doesn't drive, and is probably a little stir crazy with two young children at home all day, but I feel uncomfortable about taking her anywhere given that I don't know her that well. I also have anxiety issues that act up when people ride in the car with me, but I don't want to get into that with her. I am also considering that there might be cultural factors at play here with both of our expectations of each other, given that she has recently (~3 years?) come from India to the US and I am a lifetime resident of the US.

My question is -- how do I deal with this to get to my desired end result -- just a professional relationship, but without being insulting or hurting her feelings?
posted by bizzyb to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Time to pull out the old Miss Manners standby: "I'm sorry, that won't be possible." Nothing else necessary.
posted by brainmouse at 11:37 AM on June 30, 2011 [11 favorites]


It can be helpful in these situations to remember that you may not be able to avoid the second part of your question: her feelings may be hurt by your refusal. But as long as you manage the first part--you're not insulting--that's not your problem.

Other than that, brainmouse has it. You don't have to do a lot of explaining, just say you can't. If she asks another time, say you can't. Eventually she will stop asking.

I know this can be hard in practice--I'm not actually very good at it, especially if people push ("Why? What are you doing? Why can't you do that after you take me shopping?"). But I understand the theory, at least.
posted by not that girl at 11:44 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, just make an excuse. "I'd like to do that, but I'm doing such and such all day. I'm so sorry." Usually I'm a proponent of honesty, and I hate these fake little exchanges, but this doesn't seem worth getting into details.
posted by amodelcitizen at 11:49 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I disagree with amodelcitizen: If you give an excuse, the person will think that you WANT to but can't. This is an invitation for them to ask you again, give you alternate times, ask you later, and ask you repeatedly. No excuse is necessary! Really! Just say "It won't be possible." If they ask why? Repeat it. If they say "Well why won't it be possible"? "it's just not possible." If you don't want to be asked in the future, specific excuses are the worst possible way to say no.
posted by brainmouse at 11:53 AM on June 30, 2011 [20 favorites]


Agreeing with brainmouse. Don't say "I'd like to do that". You would not like to do that. Just say, "I will have to say no because I prefer to keep our relationship on a strictly professional level". That's a reason, not an excuse. No excuses, no apologies, no little white lies, no insincere encouragement. You may have to find a new eyebrow threader though.
posted by iconomy at 11:58 AM on June 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


I feel sad for her - I think she is reaching out in an awkward attempt to make you her friend. Especially because, as you say, she is relatively new in this country. She probably doesn't have many people in her life and is trying to get to know you socially. So, I really don't think there is a way out of this without hurting her feelings. You do need to be direct and explicit if you don't want her to just ask again, and there is no way to do that without rejecting her attempts at friendship. End result is what iconomy said: You're probably going to have to find a new eyebrow threader.
posted by something something at 12:03 PM on June 30, 2011 [11 favorites]


It might be helpful to know the ethnic background of the woman in question.
posted by alms at 12:15 PM on June 30, 2011


Politely refuse what you don't want to do.

Suggestion, if I may: Would you rather be interested or willing to have a cup of tea or something with her? So avoiding the car thing, and not spending a whole day, having responsibilities towards her etc. ... (Just a thought.)
posted by krilli at 12:23 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


People always give that "it won't be possible" advice, so there must be something to it that I'm missing, but personally I find the phrase very cold. I can't imagine saying it naturally. I think I'd say "I'm very sorry, but I can't do that. I'll call you when I need my eyebrows done." (Assuming you do intend to go back to her for threading.) Or maybe even, depending on what she's like and how you feel about it, something like "I'm very sorry, but I don't give anyone rides in my car, it makes me nervous. It's not personal. I'll call you when I need my eyebrows done." Or, if applicable, you could offer to help her with information instead. "I'm very sorry, I can't do that. But I can tell you which bus to take to get to the shopping center."
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:38 PM on June 30, 2011 [32 favorites]


This is another ask vs. guess culture thing. I am by no means an authority on cultural differences at work here, but I have worked with a lot of Indian immigrants and noticed that they certainly are more of the "ask" type.

It's understandable when considering she doesn't know a lot of people and doesn't feel like she has any means of getting to know more - her best resource is her little business. So she thought of you as someone who's friendly enough at repeat appointments, what's she got to lose?

So yeah, if you're not wanting to do it, simply call her back and say "I thought about it and no, I'm sorry, I can't do that. But I'll see you next month for my regular eyebrow appointment, ok?" And continue on like nothing of significance happened.
posted by lizbunny at 12:53 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't tell her you'd like to but are not able to. That would not be true, as you don't want to do it. Politely explain that you prefer to keep your professional relationships strictly professional.
posted by The World Famous at 1:08 PM on June 30, 2011


Ugh. I just this past week, someone I know professionally but barely know personally (also immigrant, fwiw) text messages and ask if I would co-sign a car loan for them. I know. I know.

Beg off politely and with as little explanation as possible. That's what I did, and it was all good.

It's really hard when you get put in a position like this. Aim for kindness and say no, then whatever happens will happen. This is not something you asked for, nor is it possible for you to control the reaction.

Just writing to let you know I understand and I think it will be ok as long as you are kind, but firm.
posted by jbenben at 1:14 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damn auto correct! That's "text messeged."
posted by jbenben at 1:16 PM on June 30, 2011


In case you haven't seen it: Ask vs. Guess Culture.
posted by schmod at 1:31 PM on June 30, 2011


I have to agree with DestinationUnknown. That "No, that won't be possible" is not normal speak in my neck of the woods. That sounds unnecessarily rude. Honestly, I'd use the "I'm going to be too busy" line (as much as is needed) becuase it just works so well--general enough to not be a lie and not overly mean.
posted by GeniPalm at 2:16 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ugh. I just this past week, someone I know professionally but barely know personally (also immigrant, fwiw) text messages and ask if I would co-sign a car loan for them. I know. I know.

This is a good example of why the best strategy is to politely decline and also discourage any future such requests. Sorry for my cynicism but in my experience requests of this type from either recent immigrants or acquaintances residing overseas is not truly a "friendly" request but an attempt to take advantage of you (whether that is their intention or not; perhaps there are different definitions of "friendship" in other countries). Just one of many of my personal examples: I've had business contacts in Mexico (with whom I only spoke to over the phone regarding purchase orders and invoices and other professional, business-type issues) ask me if I'd give a personal reference to help them set up a US bank account, or help them finance a vehicle or even an outside business franchise they wanted to buy, etc. Each request was made quite frankly and seemingly without guile, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to ask for such a huge favor. You only know this threader via your monthly appointments and she has never extended any overtures of friendship in the past ("would you like to go out for coffee some time?") and suddenly she wants a chauffeur service to assist in her errands.....?
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:25 PM on June 30, 2011


I have worked with a lot of Indian immigrants and noticed that they certainly are more of the "ask" type.

Really? Having married into an Indian family, this really does vary a great deal. My husband's family goes round and round in circles trying to avoid giving actual opinions and trying to guess what the every other person in the conversation wants to eat or do or whatever.

Just the fact of this woman asking doesn't necessarily make her part of "ask culture," which implies she won't take no personally. She could have really worked up the nerve to ask you and may get her feelings hurt at rejection. I, too, feel a bit sorry for her. Nevertheless, if you don't want to become friends with her, that's your prerogative. I agree that you should not give her the impression you'd like to take her but can't. Just tell her you're sorry, but you can't. Maybe help with the bus schedule as others above suggested. But don't give her the impression you're open to socializing in the future
posted by JenMarie at 2:37 PM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


in my experience requests of this type from either recent immigrants or acquaintances residing overseas is not truly a "friendly" request but an attempt to take advantage of you (whether that is their intention or not; perhaps there are different definitions of "friendship" in other countries)

I disagree that any social attempt by someone who lives / lived in another country is an attempt to take advantage of you rather than to form a friendship. I'd hate to read this if I were an immigrant. I might begin to wonder whether others had interpreted my behavior through this lens ("shoot, I suggested he pick ME up for the date, now he thinks I'm just mooching a ride. Remember, self: you must always offer to drive lest you appear a mooch"). Of course, being asked to co-sign a line of credit is certainly a different kind of request, but there is a valid distinction to be drawn here. I'm hoping that comments in this thread don't include negative generalizations of immigrants or people from India, a vast country with many social distinctions.

In this situation, I would continue to give her the benefit of the doubt, say you will not be able to go shopping with her this weeked, and reaffirm that you are looking forward to seeing her again in three weeks for your next appointment.
posted by salvia at 3:01 PM on June 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the responses so far. Just from my perspective, I can't tell from our conversation whether she's really seeking out the ride as a favor, or as a way to build a friendship. She's never done anything that indicated pursuing a friendship prior to this, but she also lives in a gigantic apartment complex, so I'd think she could find a ride that way if she wanted. I do plan to say no, regardless, because it's just not something I am comfortable with; however, I would like to continue to see her as a client and will try my best to use some of the suggestions to navigate the conversation when I see her next week. I do agree that I probably won't be leaving the door open to future activities, as I think I would be more anxious wondering when I would have to revisit the issue. Even just this today has pretty much consumed my thinking all day long.

Suggestion, if I may: Would you rather be interested or willing to have a cup of tea or something with her? So avoiding the car thing, and not spending a whole day, having responsibilities towards her etc. ... (Just a thought.)
If she asked, I think I would probably be fine with this. I am hesitant to bring it up since I'm not sure of her motivation (does she really want my friendship?) and I would hate to put her in a similar position where she feels uncomfortable about how to respond.

I'm hoping that comments in this thread don't include negative generalizations of immigrants or people from India, a vast country with many social distinctions.
I just wanted to say that I didn't intend this kind of outcome in any way. I did include cultural differences as a possibility because I do know that does show up in communication. However, I don't know any more about her background than what I provided, which shows just how little I actually know about this woman.
posted by bizzyb at 3:53 PM on June 30, 2011


Sorry if this is out of topic, but can we all avoid huge generalisations and stereotyping? Not at all helpful; also very patronizing. India has 1 billion people and a huge variation in their internal cultures. If I were to write a long response on AskMefi about how all white Americans are incredibly insular, know next to nothing about the great diversity of cultures in the world, and are overweight, I am sure I will not be tolerated. Same goes to the remarks above. Thank you.

The woman in the original question does appear to be lonely, so I hope the OP will be gentle in declining her request. Whether she is Indian or not may be relevant but should not be the basis of understanding the motivations of her request. I am often always looking out for new people to hang out with and make effort to be friends, and I am
not Indian nor currently in the US.
posted by moiraine at 4:26 PM on June 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


I also think that simply saying. "that won't be possible", and nothing else, is not the best option here. I have a feeling that the woman might be Asian, and at least from what I know living in China, directly refusing someone in that way results from a loss of face for that person. People (in china) understand that if you refuse with an excuse multiple times, you don't want to help them and they will stop asking. Now, I know she might not be chinese or even Asian, but it's something to think about.

Also, being a foreigner in another country can be very lonely.
posted by bearette at 5:33 PM on June 30, 2011


but can we all avoid huge generalisations and stereotyping?

I understand your main point but cultural information can be very useful in explaining behavior. Fact is, there are certain ways that most people from any given country will behave due to culture, customs, and language, and if you are aware of that it might make you realize that a person is not acting rude or strange, they just have different cultural norms than you do.
posted by bearette at 5:38 PM on June 30, 2011


Would this kill you? She does your eyebrows! Can you really not find a way to help her out? Can't you overcome your anxiety about a passenger for 1 afternoon? I'd swap threading for limo service ina heartbeat.
And you know, taking her would be a mitzvah.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:26 PM on June 30, 2011


Ideefixe: I did consider it, and I think I would if she had an emergency or just needed help this one time. That's not how it came across though. There was also no mention of swapping anything. Even if that was the case it turns a 20 minute errand into a much longer one. Honestly I'd gladly pay her a little more if that would help with cab fare and solve her problem. If it's a friendship thing, then that kind of offer seems like it would be insulting.

Re: friendship - as I mentioned I think I'd be fine with a cup of tea or a chat. I'm a bit of a loner in some ways...I rarely go shopping with even my best friends. The idea of going with a near stranger thus seems unappealing and kind of fast (in relationship terms).
posted by bizzyb at 10:04 PM on June 30, 2011


Decline shopping invite, and propose tea and chat then. And see how that goes. You may or may not be pleasantly surprised.
posted by moiraine at 12:52 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This woman's request really, really reads to me as an overture of friendship. I don't think she will feel uncomfortable if you offer tea and a chat. (If I'm wrong and she's not interested in your friendship, I'm sure someone who is bold enough to make this request in a non-friendship context will also have no problem saying "No thanks, I'd rather not have tea with you.")

"Sorry, I can't help you with that, but would you like to meet me at ::place:: for tea on ::convenient day::?" redirects you away from the car-driving and favour-doing that makes you uncomfortable.

Again, this does not sound to me like a request for a straight-up favour, it sounds like an offer to get together and do something this woman would like to do with someone she is hoping to become friends with. If there's a cultural element here, maybe it's the choice of a haircut for a new-friend-date.
posted by equivocator at 11:52 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


To update, I did end up deciding to be open to the outing and let her know this a few days after the original call, when I went by to get my brows done. We ended up not being able to get our schedules together for 2 weeks, but then worked it out. It turned out as something almost in between a friendly visit and errand; she said her brother and husband just aren't good at taking her for things like that because they get all impatient. We went to the hair salon and a nearby department store, then by her family's store to pick up her daughter and take them home. She said eyebrows would be free next time I needed them done.
posted by bizzyb at 3:19 PM on July 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bizzyb--thanks for coming back and letting us know. Even if you're not new BFFs for every, I'm glad you did this, and I hope she's appreciative.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:10 PM on August 1, 2011


« Older Stupidly used a huge and expen...   |  Lunch delivery in Santa Fe?... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.