The Humanist Dilemma: What to Do When Friends and Relatives Won’t Take “No” for an Answer

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No Means No: I adhere to the general idea that “No, thanks” is a complete sentence. But I often encounter people who just keep pushing, particularly when they’re asking me to join them at a religious event (even though I’ve told them I’m a nonbeliever), or asking me to join any group I don’t want to be part of. Even when I say no to going shopping or to a museum, certain friends and loved ones (including one I’m married to) continue to insist. I hate being pressured into anything, and I’m also a terrible liar, so making up excuses (“I’m having tea with the Queen that day”) doesn’t work. I also really don’t want to be dishonest. What can I do?

—Read My Lips


Dear Lips,

Every now and then I come across an article that asserts that a particular phrase will supposedly stop pushy people in their tracks, such as “I couldn’t possibly” (somehow stressing “possibly” is purported to have mystical powers) or this one  that posits a six-step procedure. Six steps! What part of “no” do people not understand, and how will five more responses make any difference?

Maybe I’m getting old and cranky, but I’m increasingly feeling like I just don’t have the time or patience for people who ignore my wholly unambiguous communication. I was told when I went through sales training that “the sale begins when the customer says ‘no.’” So although the vast majority of normal people are polite and sensitive enough to accept a simple two-letter response and let the subject drop, there are others who see “no” as a red cape encouraging them to keep charging with all they’ve got. They may mean well and be otherwise lovely people, but in these instances they are indeed being bullies and boors.

With your spouse, close friends, and relatives, it might be worth having a chat about the fact that they persist in badgering you after you’ve stated your position, and how that makes you feel. Maybe they don’t realize they’re doing it, or that it’s annoying and disrespectful to you. If it’s someone you really have to appease, you could try the steps in the above link. Or in some circumstances, such as a boss, just comply with the request if you can’t smoothly talk your way out of it, and complying won’t land you in jail or self-loathing. Otherwise, just refuse. Once. Firmly. Then ignore any further discussion, either by changing the subject or just not responding. You’re not the one being rude, insensitive, and uncooperative—that would be the person who disregards what you so plainly stated. Stand your ground. If anyone decides this a deal-breaker or the end of the relationship, perhaps it should be.

On occasion, when someone has pressed me to participate in some faith-related function even though I’ve informed them I don’t subscribe, I have been known to say, “Sorry, it’s against my religion.” And if you want really intense practice in saying no, go to some time-share presentations. You’ll be relentlessly besieged for hours by a series of increasingly skilled salespeople, but at the end you’ll collect some kind of reward for enduring the ordeal. And that’s on top of the reward for proving you couldn’t be sold something you didn’t want to buy.