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How to Say No to Work ‘Fun’

It’s totally okay to not want to hang out with your colleagues outside of work

Credit: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

ToTo have co-workers is to have co-workers invite you to things. After-work happy hours. Birthday parties on Friday nights. Picnics in backyards, or parks, or on rooftops. From time to time, or if you’re an especially social person, these events can be fun to attend. But for some of us, they can also feel like an inescapable trap.

And you know what? It’s totally okay to not want to hang out with your colleagues outside of work. You owe your job and your co-workers your time during the work day. You should, in theory, have your evenings and weekends to yourself — but that’s not really how the world works. There’s awkwardness and guilt to consider, not to mention office politics.

Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, says work-related events are all about balance and boundaries. “While it’s a good idea to join your team occasionally, allowing the after-hour events to monopolize your family or social life is a choice,” Gottsman says. “It’s important to set reasonable boundaries without coming off as if you are rude or disinterested.”

Here’s how to get out of office “fun” with respect and tact.

Act fast

If you know right away that you aren’t going to attend an event, whether because you genuinely have a conflict or because you just know in your gut that you don’t want to go, let the inviter know as soon as you can. Don’t be the person who RSVPs “maybe” to a Facebook event to buy time. The problem with this is it can come across as “shopping for a better option,” Gottsman explains. And it can inconvenience your host, who may need to plan logistics (think dinner reservations or concert tickets).

Once you’ve made your decision, commit to it. It will make you feel better to not have it weighing you down and it won’t require your host to awkwardly keep checking back. Plus, they won’t secretly loathe you for stringing them along.

Avoid saying something like “next time” — unless you really are interested in joining the group next time.

Have a positive attitude

This is a general rule of thumb for interoffice communications, but extra important here. If somebody sends out an invitation to go a brewery for a beer tasting on a Saturday afternoon, it’s probably best that you don’t use the fact that you find beer disgusting as your excuse. Gottsman says to strive for a “pleasant” tone to let people down easy, which ultimately reflects well on you.

Keep it cordial and simple, something like: “Sounds like fun but I won’t be able to attend.” Or: “Unfortunately, I can’t make it. Have a great time!”

Don’t say you’re sorry (unless you really are)

You really have nothing to be sorry about. “Once you decline, go on with your business,” Gottsman says. Of course, if you really are sorry, feel free to say it once and move on. Any more than that and you risk sounding insincere.

Similarly, Gottsman suggests avoiding saying something like “next time” — unless you really are interested in joining the group next time.

“I have other plans,” is all that’s necessary.

Tell the truth

Fibbing a little to soften the blow might seem harmless, but it isn’t always, Gottman says. Lies require you to remember which co-worker you gave which bogus excuse to for a particular event. That can come back to haunt you.

If your co-worker wants to know why you can’t attend an event, Gottsmans says you should provide an explanation for your absence, though there is no need to go into detail or overshare. “I have other plans,” is all that’s necessary, she says. Your co-worker should respect your personal life and leave it there.

It’s okay if you don’t technically have other formal plans. Your plans can be as simple as going home to watch a TV show on your couch, or have dinner with your family, or spend a day doing laundry. These are all valid activities, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation of your time.

Make an occasional exception

You absolutely do not owe your colleagues your personal time, but you’d probably do well to bite the bullet and join the work fun every now and again, especially if you’re a team leader or manager.

There’s a reason office socializing is so common: It’s generally good for morale and bonding. Putting in face time outside the office invites your co-workers to get to know you better, and gives you a chance to see what makes them tick as human beings, not just workers.

Particularly for marginalized groups, socializing outside of work can be key to breaking through barriers and networking, as the career coach Minda Harts argued recently in ZORA: “Not every business decision occurs between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” she pointed out.

You don’t have to do it often and you don’t have to stay for eternity, but an hour sipping a beer or seltzer on a Saturday can go a long way to making the office feel friendlier come Monday morning.

Madison Malone Kircher is a staff writer at New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. Twitter: @4evrmalone

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