Why It’s OK to Say No to That Party You’re Dreading

Why It’s OK to Say No to That Party You’re Dreading

Don’t stress about turning down that holiday party invitation. A new study suggests your host won’t care as much as you think.

The research, published Dec. 11 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds that people tend to overestimate the negative ramifications of declining social plans, assuming that saying no will upset the person who invited them and damage the relationship. But in a series of experiments, the researchers found that hosts just weren’t that bothered when people declined invites—certainly less than their invitees expected.

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Some study participants played the role of host, while others played the role of invitee. The inviters were told to imagine they’d asked a friend out for a fun activity, like seeing a museum exhibition or attending a dinner prepared by a celebrity chef, while the invitees were told to imagine they’d turned down the offer because they wanted to relax at home. The researchers asked the invitees how much they expected the “no” RSVP to anger or disappoint their friend, as well as how it would affect their relationship in the future. The inviters were asked the same questions from the opposite perspective.

In all five experiments in the study, invitees overestimated the social consequences of turning down an invitation. This result held true regardless of activity type, who asked them to do it, how many other people were invited, and even whether the scenario was real or hypothetical. Real-life romantic couples were tested in one experiment, with one partner asking the other to do an activity and the other saying no.

Psychological studies have long shown that people’s perceptions of their own behavior don’t always match up with how others see them. Previous studies have shown, for example, that people consistently think they’re less likable than they really are, and underestimate the positive effects of reaching out to people while overestimating the awkwardness.

One reason for the mismatch in expectations in the new study, the authors write, may be that people tend to think their loved ones will fixate on their action (saying no) more than their reasoning (being tired and wanting to relax), when that’s not necessarily the case. Other researchers have also theorized that people often overestimate how much their presence will affect other people’s enjoyment of an event and over-exaggerate the negative consequences that result from refusing a request.

The takeaway? There’s no need to let a sense of obligation lead you to an overly crammed social calendar. Chances are, it really is okay to say no to that party or book club you’re dreading.

One caveat is that all the scenarios in the new study were fairly low-stakes activities, as opposed to milestone events like a wedding or baby shower. Missing those, the authors write, may take a larger toll on relationships. The study also didn’t address the effects of repeatedly turning down a friend’s offers, or canceling existing plans at the last minute. Different cultures may also have different social expectations that could affect the results, the authors note.

And, they add, the findings shouldn’t dissuade people from going to any social events. Strong relationships are key to good health, staving off loneliness, boosting mental well-being, and potentially even improving heart health and other physical markers of wellness. So be sparing with your declines—but issue them without angst when you must.

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