I spent the bulk of my Memorial Day weekend dodging various invitations to social gatherings, walking a tightrope between protecting my safety and not hurting anyone’s feelings. I’m not sure I was successful in the latter pursuit, and I spent entire days overcome with stress about it.
Given that the death toll from the novel coronavirus neared 100,000 over the weekend, it seems wild that I have to deal with this type of social stress. But as cities and states in America open back up at varying rates and to varying degrees, it’s up to individuals to decide what social risks they’re willing to take. If you’re anything like me and have a very low risk tolerance, knowing how to say no to hanging out is a crucial skill to learn.
In this new grey area of risk, it’s likely your opinion, response, and preferences will differ from those of at least some of your friends and family members, which may cause conflict. To minimize confusion and hurt feelings, setting and communicating clear boundaries about your personal social tolerance is critical. Doing so will help you know how to say no to hanging out, protect yourself, feel good about protecting yourself, and also even boost the very relationships you’re worried about compromising.
“Identifying when to say ‘no’ is a courageous act of self care and a way to increase our own self-esteem, as well as the quality of our relationships.” —psychotherapist Alexandra Leff, LCAT
“Identifying when to say ‘no’ is a courageous act of self care and a way to increase our own self-esteem, as well as the quality of our relationships,” says psychotherapist Alexandra Leff, LCAT. “Although it can feel uncomfortable to put ourselves first, the alternative can lead to emotional consequences: feelings of resentment and anger, stress and anxiety, low self-worth and burnout.”
Below, etiquette, conflict-resolution, and psychology experts offer advice on how to say no to hanging out during this very unusual time without sacrificing your health, relationships, or sanity.
Your 5-step guide for how to say no to hanging out during the summer of COVID-19
1. Establish your personal comfort level
It’s going to be a long, decision fatigue-filled year if you have to evaluate every single social opportunity individually, from scratch. Instead, Priya Parker, an expert in conflict resolution and host of The New York Times podcast Together Apart, recommends setting some standard boundaries that can be applied to every invitation.
First, she says, establish with yourself what you’re comfortable with, whether that means one-on-one encounters outside while six-feet apart, gatherings of under 10 people, or anything else. “Ask yourself, ‘What would make me feel safe, but also alive and connected to my people?'” Establish your answer as a go-to parameter, so you don’t have to agonize over every single invitation.
2. Make sure your boundaries align with the people in your quarantine pod
Once you’ve established your own comfort level, Parker advises consulting with anyone whom you’re quarantining to ensure they’re on the same page. “Part of the irony and cruelty of this pandemic is that it’s a deeply relational one,” Parker says. “I can’t just go out and have a picnic in the sun with my friends if I’m quarantined with people who aren’t comfortable with my choices.”
3. Ask yourself 3 key questions to help you decide
To actually vet social invitations, Leff recommends asking yourself the following: “Is this something I really want to do?” “Am I comfortable with this?” And, “Am I saying yes to please the other person or avoid hurting their feelings?” Your answers will help you respond to the invitation in a way that honors your authentic needs and wants.
Feel free to grant yourself time to ponder these questions, and tell whomever offered the invitation that you need to think about it and will get back to them. “Having time to think and decide before giving a response can prevent overcommitting in the moment due to FOMO or guilty feelings,” Leff adds.
4. Respond to the invitation with grace and authority
No matter what answer you land on, make sure you graciously communicate your RSVP. Honor your loved one’s ostensibly good intentions in hosting an event or inviting you to hang out by saying something along the lines of, “I love that you are so dedicated to bringing together community.”
“Don’t allow a lot of back and forth once you’ve stated your position. Be short, to the point, no excuses.” —Jules Hirst, etiquette expert
Next, draw your boundary. If your answer is a hard no, Jules Hirst, etiquette expert and co-author of The Power of Civility, advises being plain-spoken and firm. “‘Thank you so much for the invitation; however, at this time I’m avoiding gathering to prevent the risk of COVID-19 spread,’—short, to the point, no excuses,” she says. “Don’t allow a lot of back and forth once you’ve stated your position.” Or, as Leff suggests, you could be even shorter—and intentionally sweeter—by adding positivity and avoiding any room for needing to explain yourself with something like, “That won’t work for me, but enjoy!”
And if you want to say yes but aren’t totally comfortable with the scenario presented, Parker recommends setting pre-conditions to your attendance, like, “I will attend if we stand 6 feet apart,” or “I will attend if we can remain outside,” etc. Only once those conditions are accepted should you agree to attend the gathering.
In any scenario, Parker says it’s key to communicate what you’re saying yes to, and what you’re protecting in order to detangle care for your loved one from your attendance at their event. For example, you might be saying yes to the friendship (“I miss you and love hanging out with you”) while saying no to the physical hangout, for health reasons. And if you do say no, all three pros suggest you present an alternative way to socialize, like via Zoom, so as to affirm your desire to do so.
5. Don’t lie
Whatever you decide, stick to the truth rather than leaning on faux excuses. I learned this the hard way when friends offered plan alternatives that rendered my given excuses invalid, forcing me to invent new excuses, at which point it became pretty clear I just didn’t know how to say no to hanging out effectively in the first place.
And remember, you don’t necessarily owe anyone an explanation for your “no.” “No one should make you feel guilty for not wanting to do activities during this time,” Hirst says.
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