How To Let Someone Know You're Not Interested In Starting A Friendship With Them

You've met someone new, maybe through work, mutual friends, or a hobby. They seem like they're trying to start a friendship with you, but you're not feeling it. Or there's a member of your social circle who you only see when everyone hangs out together, and you get the sense they want to be one on one buddies. You like them fine in a group setting, but don't think you'd be compatible if it was just the two of you. Either you'd already decided that from your earlier conversations, or you recently took them up on an offer to hang out and didn't get a lot from of their company.

Whatever the reason, you're not open to a closer relationship with them. What's the best way to let them know? There are two main options. Neither is fun to do, because it's uncomfortable to reject and disappoint people, but sometimes you have no choice:

Approach #1: Be direct and politely, respectfully tell them you're not interested in being friends

Or if they're part of your group, kindly let them know you don't see each other being tighter than you already are. Here are some examples:

If they try to change your mind, stick to your guns. You're not obligated to be friends with anyone you don't want to, and it's not a decision you can be debated into switching. If they say something like, "I don't buy that explanation. At least tell me what I really did wrong", don't feel you owe them any answers. There's no rule that says that if you turn someone down you have to provide them with constructive feedback.

Approach #2: Make excuses and politely turn down their invitations until they stop trying

Be pleasant when you see them (pleasant, not over-the-top fake and syrupy), but don't do anything to foster the impression you want to hang out beyond whatever relationship you currently have. When you say you're busy, don't toss in insincere lines like, "Maybe another time!" Don't make any moves to suggest an alternative day or activity. Definitely don't initiate any get togethers yourself. Most people know to stop asking after someone has turned down about three of their invitations and hasn't made any effort to make plans themselves.

Some examples of excuses are:

"Ah sorry, I can't make it...."

If they go, "Well is there a day that would work for you?", reply with something like, "I can't really say. My schedule's up in the air."

So those are your two options. Maybe you can quickly choose one. Though if you'd like some over-analysis about which I think is preferable, read on.

Why I think the indirect, excuse-making approach is the (sort of) better option in most situations

There are pros and cons to each of the two approaches, and if you sat ten people down and asked which one was best, you'd hear some debate. This isn't one of those social problems where society settled on a "right" answer a long time ago. My personal conclusion is that the indirect approach is better in most cases, though it's hardly a tidy, clear-cut victory. To put it another way, it's usually hard to tell which method will work best for any one person, but being indirect is the safer, higher percentage play. Below I'll lay out my reasoning. Once you've read it, maybe you'll agree, or maybe you'll decide being direct is a better fit for you, and that you can make it work.

(Note that this is only about the best way to turn down potential friends, not people who clearly want to date you. That's a somewhat different story.)

Being indirect often causes the other person less social and emotional pain

People in favor of the Admit You're Not Interested In Being Friends method argue that it's ultimately kinder, like ripping off a Band-Aid. The thinking goes: Yes, your hopeful friend will feel the sting of rejection, but they'll appreciate that you respected them enough to give them a straight answer. They'll feel worse if you string them along for weeks or months, their hope slowly turning to humiliation, dejection, and annoyance as it dawns on them you never had any interest in hanging out.

Sounds good in theory, but I find in practice it often doesn't work out that way. First, many people find direct, explicit, unequivocal rejection quite unpleasant (even if they believe they'd prefer it to hearing excuses). It's not the most devastating type of emotional pain ever, but it's still difficult. That single blow can cause more total emotional pain than the slow drip that accumulates as someone gradually realizes you've been making excuses to avoid setting up plans. And that comparison assumes a direct rejection causes a one-time-only burst of pain. In fact, it may affect them so much that they ruminate on it for a long time.

Even if you word your rejection in the most blow-softening way possible, it may still hurt their feelings more than giving them the runaround. You really have the potential to wound them if you accidentally deliver the news in a harsh, insulting, or insensitive way. Are you sure you have a deft-enough social touch to reject someone nicely?

Some people who lean toward the Direct Rejection approach make an empathy mistake: They have logical, rational personalities. They realize not everyone they meet will want to be friends with them. They would appreciate it if someone was straight up with them if they didn't want to hang out. Because they'd personally be okay with being rejected, they assume everyone else feels this way (or thinks they should). The reality is many people aren't good at handling rejection, for a variety of reasons.

Second, making excuses to dodge someone doesn't always upset them that much. Sometimes they buy your white lies and move on, none the wiser. Even if they have an inkling you're not as busy and unavailable as you say you are, they can always tell themselves, "Well... maybe she just really is busy with school." When you reject someone in no uncertain terms you take away that plausible deniability that lets them preserve their self-esteem.

One last point: Are there self-assured, level-headed people who can gracefully accept direct social rejection with a minimum of bruised feelings? Absolutely. But when you tell those same people you're too busy to hang out for the third time in row, it affects them even less. They shrug and think, "Hm, guess they don't want to hang out. Ah well."

Directly rejecting people can come across as premature, presumptuous overkill

Imagine you've started a part-time job and a co-worker asks you if you want to grab drinks at the end of the shift. You politely respond that you don't see yourself being friends with them. They look confused then tell you they were just making the rounds and asking everyone, to see if they could get a group together to go out with. Often when someone first asks you to hang out you don't know how much they want from you. They may only be inviting you somewhere because everyone else from the office is going and they don't want to seem rude. Assuming they're dying to be close friends with you and outright rejecting them would be a clumsy move.

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Making excuses is less likely to lead to a really bad reaction

Most people don't like rejection, but they take it without making a fuss. They wince, tell you it's no big deal, then retreat to lick their wounds. A few don't respond so well. They get angry and lash out. They try to get you kicked out of the group. They rant about you online. They become distraught and threaten to harm themselves. If they're your supervisor they might retaliate by cutting your shifts or cooking up a reason to fire you.

Sometimes you'll have a solid hunch about whether someone will take rejection well or not, but in the end you never know. This small portion of people who are extra-bad at handling rejection help ruin the direct approach for everyone else.

One not-uncommon risk factor for a poor reaction is that the person may be pretending they just want to be friends when they really want more. In general people take romantic rejections way harder than platonic ones. If a guy asks his female co-worker to see a concert "as friends", and she tells him she doesn't want to be buddies, he'll probably see it has her turning him down as a potential boyfriend too, and be that much more likely to fly off the handle.

This is another area where some people's empathy fails them. Just because you don't worry about someone getting pissy if you don't want to be friends doesn't mean other people don't feel more at risk. For example, picture a male co-worker asking you if you want to go for a bike ride on the weekend. If you're a fairly big guy, you probably aren't very concerned he may flip out, or that he's secretly infatuated with you. If you're a petite woman you've got a lot more to worry about.

Of course, someone can react badly if they realize you've been making excuses ("Arg! Stop lying! We both know if you really wanted to hang out you could make time!"). It's just less likely to happen. If someone's been rejected, they have a solid target, who committed a clear insult against them. If they suspect someone's been making excuses, they know it's riskier to call them out. The accused can always say, "Whoa... what's wrong with you? I really am busy these days." The accuser risks looking insecure and irrational.

Making excuses can help maintain harmony in the group

If someone in your social circle tries to start a closer friendship with you, directly rejecting them has the risk of causing awkwardness and bad vibes. They may get mad and hold a grudge, which everyone can pick up on. They may feel so embarrassed that they withdraw from the entire group. If you rejected them in a rude way they may trash you to your mutual friends. Your friends may feel uncomfortable on your or their behalf. There are even more risks if they're a professional colleague. They may be in a position to sabotage your work or reputation.

Again, if you make polite excuses, hopefully they'll accept them at face value and move on. If they don't quite believe you, they can tell themselves there's always a chance you're telling the truth. Even if they're sure you're lying, they probably won't want to confront you or complain to the others. That may make things tense for everyone.

One situation where all this is especially true is if they invite you to a one-on-one activity in front of your other friends. You'd have to really, really not care about their feelings to out-and-out reject them in front of an audience. An excuse lets them save face.

Being direct and upfront is more quick and efficient...

If you don't want to be friends with someone, being straightforward will get them off your back right away. You don't have to deliver excuses over several weeks until they get the message. However, I don't think cold efficiency should be your main consideration when deciding which approach to use. I think in this case it makes sense to look out for people's feelings first, even if it's a bit less convenient for you. It's not like having to give an excuse here and there is a huge burden.

The making-excuses approach is maybe slightly easier

Both methods have their simple and tricky parts. On one hand, being direct is quick and straightforward, though many people find it uncomfortable to be the rejector. Making excuses spares you from the awkwardness of having to reject someone, though it can be a bit stressful and tiresome to have to fib over a longer stretch of time. All in all, I think being indirect is somewhat easier. Most people are fairly nice, considerate of others, and really dislike having to reject anyone. Using excuses may make them feel a bit deceptive and slippery, but that's preferable to knowingly shooting someone down.

Though again, just because something is easier doesn't mean it's right. I think what makes the Use Excuses approach better is that it's likelier to save people from emotional pain. That it's easier is only a bonus.

It's debatable as to which approach is more "mature"

Another argument you'll hear from Direct Rejection supporters is that it's more mature; if you don't want to be friends with someone the adult thing to do is tell them. It's brave. It's straightforward. It respects people's time, intelligence, and coping skills. Making excuses is weak, insincere, condescending, and cowardly.

The retort is something I've brought up a few times already: Making excuses is technically dishonest, but it's for the good intention of sparing people's feelings. In most cases it will cause less total emotional pain than rejecting someone outright. It's more mature in the sense that it's making other people's comfort the priority rather than focusing on what's quicker for you, or iffy ideas like, "Being straightforward about how you feel is always better".

In some cases you can use a hybrid approach that gives you the best of both worlds

Sometimes you don't have to choose the slightly better of two so-so options. The hybrid approach is to tell someone straight away that you're not available for a friendship, but instead of rejecting them, you make one big, long-term excuse that covers all your bases. For example:

You can pull off this approach if you have a solid-enough excuse. It won't work if you try to say something that's clearly not true or easy to disprove. Like you can't tell someone from your sports league that you don't have time to be social when you're constantly hanging out with other teammates.

When it may be better to use the Direct Rejection approach

On the whole I think the Excuse Making approach wins out, but here are some times where respectfully being direct may be appropriate: