After having lived for almost a year in a new condo complex, one of your friendly neighbors has captured your interest. You have established a superficial friendship involving a regular exchange of pleasantries, including elevator conversations on everything from the weather, to the success of your local baseball team, to the new key card policy in the parking garage.
Finally, you decide to take the plunge and ask her to join you for afternoon coffee. Research indicates that the words she uses to respond will reveal whether your interest is reciprocated.
So, what does she say?
Words Matter: Acquaintances Reject With Respect
Research shows that messages of romantic rejection, especially when delivered in person, are often carefully crafted, and can be interpreted accordingly.
Besson et al. in a study entitled “Preserving face in refusal situations” (1998) examined different ways of phrasing rejection in order to refuse with respect.[i] They used an example of a man asking a woman out to dinner, and had participants craft messages about how the woman should respond when she was not interested, versus interested but unavailable to have dinner on the date suggested.
They found that generally, people rejecting a date due to disinterest withheld the expression of personal reasons in favor of impersonal reasons. They found that people who did not want future interaction clearly expressed their refusal, but also included mitigating statements such as apologies, expressions of appreciation, and concern for the requestors feelings, in order to address face needs.
Research also shows that responses are different when a date request is general, or specific.
I Have Two Tickets to the Opera on Saturday Night
Before making a specific date request, remember that most people do not have social calendars that are wide open. Most of us juggle lives filed with family obligations, work schedules, and pre-existing social commitments. This means that someone who is receptive to your suggestion of becoming better acquainted might refuse a specific date request, but express a willingness to coordinate an alternative date and time that works.
Sure enough, Benson et al. found that people who rejected a particular date request but desired future interaction used counteroffers and expressions of interest. Recognizing the difference between rejection in general and rejection of a specific date request is important, especially for people who are sensitive to perceived rejection.
And then there is the frequently encountered challenge of deciphering whether a suggestion of future contact is romantic, or platonic.
“Let´s Do Lunch:” Politeness and Social Distance
Research shows that in a romantic context, when rejection messages are crafted, they depend on the amount of social distance between the parties. Individuals who are already acquainted are separated by less social distance than strangers. This will impact the words they use in rejecting a romantic overture.
Tong and Walther in a study entitled “Just say ´no thanks´” (2011), found that low social distance rejecters were more polite, and were more likely to suggest future platonic contact than high social distance daters, who were more likely to use apologies, perhaps because they are easier to compose.[ii]
They found that strategies of politeness depended on whether the other person was a stranger or an acquaintance, and whether they were using online messaging or email. Unlike dating sites, which offer a “no thanks” button that allows easy, impersonal rejection of an unwanted offer, where two people are acquainted in real time, rejection messages need to be crafted.
For example, a woman who lives in the same condo complex as a man who finally musters up the courage to ask her out for coffee will not just say “no thanks.” If she is not interested, she will nonetheless elaborate in some sense, in order to allow her neighbor to save face.
And finally, after you have bravely taken the plunge and asked the question, the final step is correctly interpreting the answer.
Context Informs Content: Listen Carefully to Hear Between the Lines
What your neighbor says in response to your coffee invitation will not necessarily be what you hear. Because unless you are a telemarketer, constantly dealing with hang-ups or requests to be put on do not call lists, you have probably encountered ambiguity regarding expressions of rejection—especially in a romantic context. Because planning an overture involves taking an emotional risk, your vulnerability might color the way you interpret the answer.
True, politeness and face concerns drive the quest to reject with respect, muting what might otherwise be a blunt expression of disinterest. On the other hand, remember that a rejection of a specific date request does not necessarily signal disinterest. The best way to correctly interpret communication in the early stages of relationship development requires patient attention to both content and context. Listening carefully enhances your ability to hear between the lines.
[i]Amber L. Besson, Michael E. Roloff and Gaylen D. Paulson, “Preserving face in refusal situations,” Communication Research 25, no. 2, 1998, at 183.
[ii]Stephanie Tom Tong and Joseph B. Walther, ”Just say ´no thanks´: Romantic rejection in computer-mediated communication,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 28, no. 4, 2010, 488-506.