Too Much Versus Not Enough: The Art of Saying "No" and Other Useful Tips

Conversation... is the art of never appearing a bore, of knowing how to say everything interestingly, to entertain with no matter what, to be charming with nothing at all.
- Guy de Maupassant

"My Mother's Poodle Has The Hots For My Cousin's Hamster!!" This and other like-minded television talk show topics have spawned a trend for revealing private gossip in public forums. While the network executives revel in the entertainment value of these shows, as average citizens we must guard our privacy. Contrary to what the media may suggest, there is such a thing as too much information. In fact, two of the aspects that drew me to the field of etiquette were the concept of responding to a question without being obligated to divulge all and the all-important technique of changing the topic of conversation. Used in tandem, these techniques will allow you be polite even when the topic becomes too personal.

Invitations ~ Accepting an invitation is easy. A simple "I would be delighted to attend" will do. It is in the invitation declination that many people have difficulty. You do not need to share your myriad of social obligations, nor do you need to explain why you are not speaking with another invited guest, nor do you need to create an excuse for an event you would just rather not attend. To decline an invitation a simple "Thank you so much for inviting, unfortunately I can not attend" will do. Even when asked, you do not need to expand upon your answer.

Eating ~ Whether you have a food allergy, medical restrictions, religious beliefs, philosophical reasons, dietary guidelines or an aversion to certain foods; at the dinner table is no time to dissect why you are not eating something others are enjoying. Please keep your reasoning to yourself. If you have been invited to someone's home or to an event, it is up to you to ask the host/hostess well in advance what they are planning to serve. But unless you are the guest of honor, do not expect any drastic changes in the menu.

Personal Relationships ~ I have been amazed over the years at the questions some people feel they can ask others. Some of the best examples have come in through the Mannersmith website. They include: "When are you getting married?" "Why don't you have kids yet?" " Are you are single or just gay?" "I heard your wife was having an affair, are you going to get a divorce?" Again, these are situations where just because you are asked does not mean you are obligated to respond to the question. Sometimes a "You are so sweet to be worried about me" and then a quick topic change is appropriate. If this is a close confident and you want to tell them the sordid details of your personal life, go right ahead, but if this is a casual acquaintance, you can move right along to less personal topics.

Work Information ~ It is not just the glamorous jobs that have aspects of confidential information. If you have work information that should not be shared as part of cocktail party small talk, it is up to you to safeguard that information. Obviously, the first recommendation is not to bring up the topic of work in the first place. But should your job become the topic at hand, feel free to be vague and change the subject. Or if the person is interested in a service you offer, encourage them to call you at the office.

Money Talks ~ In some social circles, dollar amounts are taboo topics, whereas in other social circles, everything has a price tag attached. Whether you want to talk about how much you earn or how much something costs is completely up to you. Again, if this is not something you want to discuss, change the topic.

Medical Background ~ Sometimes we just cannot help ourselves. We see a cast, bandage, or scar and want to know what happened. While initially some temporary injuries make for lively small talk, often having to repeat the story will begin to wear down the person. And many sufferers of more chronic conditions prefer to talk about their aches and pains with their doctors only. If asked directly, a brief explanation can be used before changing the topic.

Changing the Subject ~ People often ask if changing the topic of conversation to something completely unrelated is awkward or forced. But the skilled conversationalist knows that even in unstructured chats, the participants bounce rapidly from one topic to the next. The difference between a skilled conversationalist and a novice is the ease in which the skilled talker can re-direct the topic. Here are some suggestions to help you when you do not want to answer a question, or when you find yourself wishing you were talking about something else.

  • General
    - That is an interesting question, but what I find fascinating is...
    - Why do you ask?
  • Invitations
    - I am so sorry I cannot attend. Thank you for the invitation.
  • Eating
    - These green beans are just delicious.
    - No thank you.
  • Personal Relationships
    - I am still searching for the perfect person.
    - Well, you are already taken!
  • Work Information
    - I wish I could talk about it, but you should see the confidentiality agreement I had to sign...
    - That is an interesting situation; you really should set up an appointment to come see me at the office.
  • Money Talks
    - More than I wanted to pay, but less than the asking price.
    - Not as much as I am worth.
  • Medical Background
    - You are so sweet to worry about me.
    - I could complain, but who would want to listen.
Remember, just because someone asks you a question does not mean that you are obligated to reveal your private matters. But how you frame your answer can be the difference between a conversation stopper and gently moving the conversation to more appropriate topics.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ My husband I recently bought our first home. We had a little housewarming party and one of our college friends brought along her new boyfriend. The first question he asked after introductions was how much we paid for the house. I answered, "More than we expected, but much less than the asking price." He then said, "No really, how much did you pay?" I laughed and said that the negotiating got a bit strained, but we were pleased with the outcome. He responded that if I did not tell him he could look it up on the Internet. To which I said if he was that curious, he should. I then changed the topic by asking how they met. It was a bizarre interaction and not one I wish to repeat. If something is public information, am I obligated to share it?

A: This individual certainly has a lot to learn about social interactions. I am impressed that you managed to keep your cool. No, just because information can be obtained through public means does not mean you are obligated to share that same personal information.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ My grandmother keeps asking me how much one of my cousin's makes at work. The fact is that I do not know my cousin's salary. But this makes me wonder if she asks other relatives about my salary. Should I tell my cousin about my grandmother's inquiries? Should I worry that my grandmother is asking about me?

A: Let us presume that your grandmother has only the best intentions at heart and wants to make sure your cousin can support him/herself. The next time your grandmother asks about your cousin's salary, you may want to turn the question around to find out why your grandmother wants to know. Let your grandmother know you do not discuss salaries with this cousin and then let the matter drop. Do not worry about what your grandmother is asking others about you. Whether you tell your cousin about your grandmother's questions really depends on how close you are to your cousin.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I am a strict vegetarian for a variety of reasons. When I eat with others, invariably someone will ask why I am not eating a certain dish. I know the dinner table is not the time for a debate, but I do not want to pass up the opportunity to convert a carnivore. Is there a polite way for me to discuss vegetarianism at the dinner table?

A: When someone seems genuinely interested in finding out more about being a vegetarian, make a mental note to find the person after dinner, or to call them the next day to talk. The only time you can make speeches at the dinner table is when it is your own. You certainly can host a gourmet vegetarian meal, invite over friends and use the dinner discuss as a way to teach your friends more about your eating practices.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I made a classic blunder, in declining an invitation I told the host that I would have loved to attend, but I already had plans that evening. Well, the host changed the night so that I could attend. But the truth is I just did not want to go in the first place. What can I do?

A: At this point, you need to go. You have learned your lesson the hard way. In the future, unless you really would have loved to attend, do not say you would! When declining an invitation, less information is generally better.