The word "nope" in clear, tubular lower case script against a wood panel background.
Academic life

Scripts for saying no

without falling all over yourself to make it seem okay

So you’ve decided to say no to something. Now what? How are you going to write that email and sound clear, confident, and firm in your response? In this post, I’m going to share some techniques, scripts, and general advice on how to craft a no. Saying no doesn’t have to be scary. With some practice and the right words at your fingertips, you’ll be a pro at no in no time at all.

Scenario 1: No response is saying no

As Tressie McMillan Cottom once tweeted, “an email is not a contract.” Just because someone has reached out with a request does not obligate you to respond. This applies to any “cold” emails from strangers or outside organizations, especially those that you have no knowledge of and no relationship with. Similarly, if the request is outside of your area of expertise, or seems tokenistic, give yourself permission to not reply.

Some of you might be breaking out in hives. What if a total stranger doesn’t think I’m nice over email?!? If hitting delete isn’t in your DNA, use these scripts to send a concise, solid no:

  • Thank you for considering me, but I won’t be able to participate. Best of luck with the event.
  • Thank you for reaching out, but I’m not available. I wish you well with the project.
  • Thank you, but I have to decline. Take care.

Notice that these scripts don’t contain any reasons or justifications, nor do they open the door to negotiation. In this scenario, it’s best to keep it short (and sweet if you want to).

Scenario 2: It’s probably a no but I need time

Sometimes you’re about 90% sure it’s a no, but you want time to consider the ramifications or the nature of your response. Remind yourself that there are few truly urgent things in academia and it’s almost always okay to take a few days or longer to ponder a thing. I advise being as neutral as possible, though, in your time-buying reply.

  • Thank you for thinking of me for this. I’m going to take until the end of the week to consider it.
  • I’ll need some time to consult my schedule.
  • I will give this some thought and get back to you by Monday.

Taking time gives you a chance to check in with your gut, your group chat, your mentor, your therapist, or your astrologist, if it comes to that. It also lets the other party know that you take their request seriously.

Scenario 3: It’s a no but I care about the other person

When it comes down to properly saying no, after a pause or otherwise, and the ask comes from someone you work with, respect, or care about, you’ll want a slightly more fulsome script. This also goes for situations where you feel there’s a power imbalance that’s tipped against you. Nonetheless, you’re not obliged to spell out eighteen reasons for saying no. One clear, firm, high-priority reason will do.

A critical note: your reason must be the true reason! If you can’t give the true reason, better to be vague. For example, if you say “I can’t work with that deadline,” but your true reason is, “I will never work with that particular person,” you’re opening yourself up to trouble if they say: “oh, the deadline is flexible, what works for you?” Much better to say “I’m not available for this,” or “thank you, but I have to say no.”

Here are some polite but strong scripts to try:

  • I really appreciate being considered for this project. However, I have to say no as I’m prioritizing my book/dissertation/tenure application/other big thing.
  • This sounds like a great event, but I’ve reached capacity on my availability. Thank you and good luck.
  • I’m sure this committee will be doing important work. Unfortunately, I have already solidified my service commitments for the year and won’t be able to add more.
  • Thank you for this invitation. However, I have already planned my academic projects for the year and this doesn’t align with the priorities I’ve set. I’m sure you understand.
  • This seems like a wonderful opportunity and I’m honoured to be asked. I have committed to finishing my thesis this year, though, so I’m going to have to respectfully decline. Thank you for understanding.

Saying no means saying less

Over my years in academia, I’ve come to firmly believe that less is more in the realm of saying no. You might think you’re softening the blow by provided an annotated bibliography of every other item on your “to do” list, but trust me, no one wants to read it. It comes off less as polite, and more as “look at how busy I am, busier than you, I COULDN’T POSSIBLY!”

In a long-winded response, you always leave more openings for negotiation. If you really want to stay firm in your no, don’t provide space for the other party to push the boundaries by subtly shifting the ask. It just prolongs the process and wears you down.

I know that saying no carries different consequences for people based on position, identity, etc. Checking in with trusted mentors, counselors, and friends can help you weigh your ability to say no. Remember, too, that saying yes also has consequences. If you agree to organize forty years worth of your supervisor’s mimeographed articles, you might win their gratitude but your dissertation will be delayed by months. If you take on another research collaboration and collapse from burnout, all of your projects will suffer (as will you, your family, etc!).

Like so many other things, saying no gracefully and comfortably takes practice. I hope these simple scripts help you to begin to feel more confident when you need to say no.

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