Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
Is "no" really a complete sentence?
You hear this boundary advice all the time. While I like the intention, here's why it rubs me the wrong way.
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“No is a complete sentence.” At least 12 people leave this as a comment every time I post about boundaries—and they’re not wrong. “No” is a complete sentence, and the intention with which this sentiment is shared definitely moves us in the right direction.
We (especially women, especially moms) have been conditioned to have a damn good reason for saying no to anything. We’ve been taught that other people’s expectations always outweigh our own needs and feelings, and saying no is rude or selfish. We’re supposed to put our own needs, feelings, capacity, energy, time, desires, and mental health aside until nobody else needs anything from us, and even then, we should sleep with one eye open just in case.
The “no” nuance
Saying “no is a complete sentence” is an antidote to this mentality. It reaffirms that “I don’t want to,” “I need time at home,” “I don’t have the energy,” or “that doesn’t sound fun” are good enough reasons. It removes the pressure to make up an excuse that may be deemed “justifiable” and empowers us to speak clearly and directly.
I like all of that—but this sentiment still rubs me the wrong way. And that’s because we all realize that there are plenty of scenarios for which this is terrible advice.
Your mom asks, “We’ve scheduled your father’s memorial service next month—can you make it?” You reply, “No,” and hang up the phone.
Your boss says, “To celebrate your first week here, can the team take you for lunch on Friday?” You say, “No,” and return to your typing.
Your spouse says, “Can I wine and dine you on Saturday night? I’ve already called the sitter.” You say, “No,” and walk out of the kitchen.
Your child says, “Can we play Uno after dinner?” You say, “No,” and take another bite of chili.
The problem with social media nuggets—even ones as great as this—is that the medium can almost never do the nuance and complexity of the subject justice. So when people say, “No is a complete sentence,” I always think, “Yes? Sometimes? In limited circumstances? But not most of the time.”
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When is “no” a complete sentence?
I can think of a few instances in which you really can just say no (or “no thank you” to be polite).
When offered a food or beverage you don’t want. This is the perfect opportunity to practice letting your “no” stand firm. When they ask, “Do you want a glass of wine?” you can just say “no, thanks” or “no,” then move the conversation along.
When someone has asked you several times. The first time, you might say, “Thanks, but karaoke isn’t my thing—I’ll pass,” or “No, I’m not drinking right now, I’m good with water.” But if they continue to press, you’re perfectly justified in saying (after a pause and with direct eye contact) a very pointed “no,” then changing the subject or walking away.
When you’re responding to an unsolicited request, especially from a stranger or loose acquaintance: “Would you speak at my online summit?” “Can I introduce you to my life coach?” “Can we set up a call to talk about your social media marketing?” Feel free to send a flat “No, thank you.” (Or expand just a bit with, “I don’t participate in online summits,” “I’m not interested,” or “thanks for the offer, but we don’t have a need.”)
See? Even in these scenarios, you can see how adding just a tiny bit of context (even if it’s just “thanks”) smooths your communications. You could just say “no” to the concert invite or the request to speak, but in most cases, it feels better to say just a little more. This is especially true if you don’t want them to ask again. Adding, “karaoke isn’t my thing” or “I don’t participate in online summits” can help the other person understand why you’re saying no, and taking that into account in the future.
When “no” feels incomplete
In all other scenarios, I feel like my relationships deserve more than a one-word answer. That doesn’t mean I justify or over-explain my boundaries; only that I deliver my answer in a more conversational (but still direct) package.
Friend: “We’re meeting for dinner Friday night, can you join?” Me: “Damn, I miss your face, but I really need Friday at home. How about yoga next weekend?”
Family member: “We’d love to stay for a week, does that work?” Me: “A week is too long for my introverted self. We have a max of four nights for guests.”
Colleague: “I’d love to introduce you to this brand I work with, I think you’d love what they’re doing.” Me: “Thanks for thinking of me, but I don’t have capacity for a get-to-know-you right now.”
Co-worker: “We’re going out for drinks—want to come?” Me: “I’m not comfortable in a bar right now, so I’ll pass, but I’d love to grab lunch one day next week.”
In all of these cases, I could just say no, but that doesn’t feel kind enough. Note, I’m still only speaking truth. I’m not sharing excuses or making up reasons why I can’t. I’m being direct about what I will do or want to do, if anything. But I intuitively feel as though I need more than just a “no” to keep these relationships running smoothly.
“No” is the heart of the sentence
If thinking of “no” as a complete sentence helps you feel empowered in sharing clear, kind, direct responses to requests without over-explaining or justifying, please keep it! The sentiment is good and it’s a catchy way to get a complex message across.
But if you hear that and think, “Really, though, is it?” know that your boundary is not weakened by adding some social niceties to your “no,” as long as your “no” is the star of the show. Speak your truth, be direct, don’t make excuses, but feel free to add a “thanks,” “have fun,” or “here’s where I am” as a kindness in service of your relationships.