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I recently have had a discussion about my friend's tone in his email.

His supervisor asked him whether he wants to attend a summer school in May. He wanted to thank him for his invitation and also wanted to keep the mail short. As a result, that is what he came up with:

Hello Professor,

I have plans during that period. Thanks, but no thanks.

Regards,
John

He is getting along well with his supervisor, but I believe that the phrasing is a bit disrespectful nevertheless. It might be the case that I am not a native speaker.

Am I exaggerating the situation and this is something can be overlooked?

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    I would be a bit more formal: "Thank you so much for suggesting that I attend the summer program, but I unfortunately have other plans. I appreciate you thinking of me. Regards, J" – RoboKaren Feb 9 '18 at 21:41
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    @padawan I do not know whether it is ok in the US. In the UK it is a very unfortunate choice of words. Highly discouraged. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 21:48
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    @mathreadler Minor nuances in choice of words can start wars (read up on Ems dispatch). Yes, even on a smaller scale and will less at stake, in academia. This can cost you a lot, possibly orders of magnitude more time or major career opportunities, than the little extra attention in being polite. Plus, if you make politeness your unflappable professional standard, without exception, it will become a habit, and you will expend need less and less time in communicating appropriately, even when under pressure and even when angry. – Captain Emacs Feb 9 '18 at 22:38
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    @cbeleites "Thanks, no" in English is not the politest way of showing appreciation, but it is not outright rude (BTW, also in German "Danke, nein" is ok in conversation, but feels not be quite as polite in writing when body language is missing). However, "Thanks, but no thanks" has in its second part "no thanks" which has adopted the meaning that actually you are explicitly not thanking for the offer (in other words, is not just a neutral "no", as in the German version - in English the "thanks" seems to have become a substantive here). – Captain Emacs Feb 11 '18 at 12:04
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    @MassimoOrtolano He indeed reads this and convinced that I was right about the tone. The rest, I do not know but I guess he'll apologize soon. – padawan Feb 11 '18 at 15:15

11 Answers 11

231

It sounds extremely rude, I am afraid. I would assume mitigating circumstances for a non-native speaker, but the "no thanks" permits "thanks" to be interpreted as substantive, and thus has a highly dismissive connotation which should never be used with your superior, and neither with a friend you would like to keep.

The connotation that shines through (at least in the UK) is a sarcastic "Yeah right, you think you do me a favour? In future, please spare me your ideas."

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    +1. I get the same connotation as a US speaker, for what it's worth. "Thanks, but no thanks" is always rude/flippant, if you ask me. It's fine to say to a friend in a light-hearted or joking way, but that's about it. "Thank you, but [some explanation]" is a better way to phrase this if you want to keep it short. – ell Feb 9 '18 at 22:25
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    -1: definitive assertions given without evidence, and ones that go against my experience (as someone from the UK), including "sounds extremely rude" and "highly dismissive". Moreover, the connotation may shine through for the answerer, but by no means is this "completely standard (in the UK)". The answerer's connotation didn't even cross my mind. – Sam T Feb 12 '18 at 22:26
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    As a non-native speaker, I know of two connotations for this: among friends, it can be a "you know I don't want to even talk about this topic, please stop" but in general it is mostly a sarcastic "keep your tips for yourself or people who want them". – skymningen Feb 13 '18 at 10:04
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    @SamT Added explanation, why it sounds dismissive (with which connotation most posters here seem to agree); thanks for pointing out the lack of evidence. – Captain Emacs Feb 13 '18 at 10:20
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    This isn't just a question of sensitivity, as some here are suggesting. Like others, I've only ever heard this used in a sarcastic context. Therefore, if someone used it -- particularly in an email, absent things like tone and facial expression -- I would naturally assume it was written sarcastically. That's not because I'm super sensitive (I may not even mind that they're being sarcastic), but because it's a common phrase with common usage. In other words, it's possible for the reader not to mind the sarcasm, but still assume it's there. – yshavit Feb 15 '18 at 19:30
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Given that "thanks, but no thanks" is often used as a mocking euphemism for "gee, that's a stupid idea, I will of course not do that" I would suggest not using it on your advisor.

What's wrong with just writing "thank you, but unfortunately I won't be able to make it for reasons A and B"?

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    Right: this language usually refers to either a stupid proposal and/or an attempted deceit. – paul garrett Feb 9 '18 at 23:28
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    Ditto. Your friend has mistaken an idiom coined for snide usage as a literal phrase that means only what it seems to, taken literally. In person it could be moderated by tone and phrasing, but in an e-mail it's likely to be taken wrong. However if the supervisor knows your friend well and they get on well together, they may recognize what's going on, and understand the intent. – CCTO Feb 12 '18 at 15:56
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It's not the use of a "slang" expression that's the issue.

Saying "thanks, but no thanks" implies that s/he was trying to trick you with the offer to which you're replying. The phrase is imbued with a bit of hostility and disdain.

So, don't use it. Also, the way your friend phrased your email sounds flippant. Turning down an offer from someone's advisor should be done with more of a justification. It wouldn't hurt to be polite and respectful, and write something like

Hello Professor Smith,

I want to thank you for the offer of XYZ; unfortunately, I've already made plans to [important activity that clearly should not be canceled to take the offer].

[Possible counter-suggestion regarding the offer, e.g. doing something after that period of unavailability.]

Regards,
John

Still pretty short.

Notes:

  • The reason doesn't have to be super-specific, but the more vague it is, the more it's likely to sound like an excuse.
  • If your friend dislikes his/her supervisor, or doesn't appreciate him/her, or the offer - that's double the reason to be polite and respectful of him/her when rejecting.
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    You don’t need to necessarily give the detailed reason and you can be vague (“a family event” rather than “a wedding” for example). It’s just important that it be politely phrased. – RoboKaren Feb 9 '18 at 21:53
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    I'm not sure "implies that s/he was trying to trick you" is the right way to describe the use of that phrase, though I agree with everything else in this answer. I would say I most commonly hear it used in response to an insincere offering (like a joke) or in rejecting an unappreciated offer. – Bryan Krause Feb 9 '18 at 22:08
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    @RoboKaren It depends a lot on the kind of relationship one has with their advisor. Trust is frequently built on the details. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 9 '18 at 22:09
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    There am be a great deal of personal variation, but as a faculty member and advisor, I do not have the right to ask for such personal details and students should not feel pressured to provide them in order to prove “trust.” – RoboKaren Feb 9 '18 at 23:13
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Advisors propose activities to students to give them opportunities: to learn, to build connections, and to become known in their field. All things that can be useful for the students' future careers (many of my current colleagues are actually people who I first met at a summer school).

Thus, I would consider your friend's email offensive (and, no, I'm not a particularly polite person in everyday life).

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    You don't actually explain why the student's email is offensive. – David Richerby Feb 10 '18 at 9:59
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    @DavidRicherby From the point of view of English usage, others have already explained why such an answer is impolite: my implicit point is that, moreover, that answer is offensive because it doesn't take into account the motivation of the proposal. That is, a professor doesn't propose activities just for the sake of it. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 10 '18 at 10:06
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    (Speaking for Germany, as the question is not localized) the offer to attend a summer school is nothing to be lightly turned down over here. So besides the issue with the rude idiom, I'd say that this is a point where John should give a good reason for refusing (hint for the scale: holidays = no good reason*, John's own wedding on that summer school Wednesday = good reason; * if John as employee of the university did ask for those holidays already a while ago, i.e. months in advance and got the OK for the holidays, the situation improves to "maybe OK" depending on further circumstances). – cbeleites Feb 11 '18 at 13:08
  • The point is to communicate that John appreciates the offer as important opportunity. So IMHO "Unfortunately [good reason]. Would it be possible to attend this summer school next year instead?" Or possibly "Would it be possible to attend [other summer school] instead? IMHO otherSummerSchool fits more closely with my project" would be a good way to show that John is not just evading education and clearly doesn'd lightly disregard the opportunity. – cbeleites Feb 11 '18 at 13:20
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'Thanks, but no thanks.' is sarcastic and rude. Your friend should NOT use such wording, ever. If he has, he should personally visit the professor and apologize for having done so. If he is not a native English speaker, he might be able to blame it on that. If he is, he should have known better, and will have trouble explaining his use of such a phrase.

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Your friend seems to have gotten the idea that "no thanks" is needed to indicate that the answer is "no", while "thanks" is needed to indicate gratitude for the offer. That is not the case. If the email were to contain nothing but the word "thanks", that would be inferred to be acceptance, but "thanks" in an email that otherwise indicates other plans would be understood to be only gratitude, and not acceptance. And "no thanks", as the words indicate, communicates both a negative answer and gratitude.

Thus, "thanks, but no thanks" is redundant. Unfortunately for your friend, it is a form of redundancy that has been used to indicate disdain. To be precise, I would say that it not so much is rude, but has been associated so much with rude intent that it should be avoided (although of course there is a point at which "is taken to be rude" becomes the same as "is rude").

You say that you are not a native speaker, but don't mention whether your friend is. If I were speaking with a non-native speaker, I would give them the benefit of the doubt and not expect them to be familiar with the entirety of English-speaking culture. Even with a native speaker, I would be willing to entertain the possibility that they chose their words poorly without considering the pop-culture context, especially if I had had previous dealings with them in which they were polite. Other people here have indicated that they would be less charitable, which I find unfortunate, so your friend will have to consider the possibility that the professor will share their attitude.

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    This answer is the most accurate answer so far. It is both technically correct, and it also points out the negative stereotype that many people have forced upon the phrase and addresses this. Many of the other answers exaggerate the situation with suggestions that the phrase "definitely is rude and you need to apologize" or "I would not give you the time of day after that beyond what was contractually necessary" which do help OP to see how some people blow this way out of proportion but also are inappropriate responses. This is the correct answer. +1 – Aaron Feb 12 '18 at 22:48
  • +1 for a good explanation - however, what's missing in the response is the reason why this is interpreted as rude; in my opinion it is the case because the "thanks" in "no thanks" can be interpreted as a substantive; in other words reading as: "thanks, but [actually] no thanks [for that]". I was stumped by that, too, when I first learnt that phrase. – Captain Emacs Feb 14 '18 at 2:27
  • This is the right answer. In the absence of other motivations for thinking a person is being deliberately discourteous, the sensible response is to assume they meant what they said. Injecting meaning that was most likely not intended is just silly. – Lycan Feb 14 '18 at 7:32
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"Thanks, but no thanks" is a sarcastic insult, plain and simple. If I were the supervisor, it would end any feelings of good will I had toward the student. From then on, I would provide the student with the statutory support required by my contract, but no more, and devote my energy towards helping other students.

A sincere apology might put things right.

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    I think this is an exaggeration. I would never take such a drastic shift in my position towards a student based on one unpleasant interaction (unless perhaps it rose to the level of physical violence or death threats). But I agree that it comes off as quite insulting. – Tom Church Feb 11 '18 at 4:32
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    ...to be honest, this answer paints you in a really bad light. One insult from a student whose first language you know isn't English and you immediately stop caring about them beyond what you're legally required to? Seriously? My response would be, even to a native English speaker, "Well, that's a bit rude. I was offering because [reasons]. Sorry if I offended you." It would certainly damage the relationship, but not completely wreck it, and an apology and some time would set things right. – Nic Hartley Feb 11 '18 at 6:51
  • @NicHartley You are right that from one interaction only, one should not make a decision about a person, however, it would definitely put the one on the receiving end on higher alert in future interactions whether this pattern repeats and in which spirit it does so. Also, for someone known as foreign or usually polite, one would assume some mitigating circumstances. – Captain Emacs Feb 11 '18 at 11:03
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    @CaptainEmacs Oh, I would definitely be mildly put-off and a little colder, for sure. I wasn't saying it would be inappropriate to have any negative feelings for that. It is pretty insulting, after all. It just seems extreme to react that harshly to one incident, no matter the circumstances, as this post implies. – Nic Hartley Feb 11 '18 at 11:23
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    @NicHartley I thought the most valuable sentence in the response is: "A sincere apology.." And a quick one it should be; this is the best response. I find that on realising a gaffe or upset of any sufficiently serious kind, an immediate and unconditional apology (no ifs, buts, or excuses) does wonders. – Captain Emacs Feb 11 '18 at 11:28
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If I was invited to attend something that I couldn't I would simply say, thanks for inviting me, but I'm sorry I'll have to decline, as I'm busy that day.

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    Just stating that you are "busy that day" is not incorrect but might still be not the best solution. It might come across as "I don't want and have better stuff to do". However, if you are on holiday or have another very important appointment, you should explicitly state this. This says "I would like to but cannot unfortunately". – J-Kun Feb 10 '18 at 5:47
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    @J-Kun Really? I've never had "I'm busy" interpreted as "I have better things to do", or at least not with the semi-malicious subtext of the latter. ' – Nic Hartley Feb 11 '18 at 6:52
  • What @J-Kun says is true for overly sensitive people. There are some people who read anything with an "I will interpret anything negatively if I can" attitude. At that point, where people are distorting your words (user87312 never said "I don't want to") that is their fault for poor reading skills, not your fault for poor communication skills. It still might be preferable to appease people like this as well, but that is a separate issue from saying something that many people will assume has rude intent. – Aaron Feb 12 '18 at 22:42
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This question might be better on https://english.stackexchange.com/, but I think you already have a few excellent answers. Let me add my own two cents' worth.

"Thanks, but no thanks" often comes across as sarcastic and even contemptuous to the native speaker's ear.

A far better phrasing would be:

"Hello Professor,

Summer school does sound very interesting. Unfortunately, I have already made plans for that period. I must therefore respectfully decline your thoughtful invitation. Thank you very much.

Regards, John"

It may be a bit longer than your friend intended, but it's not unduly verbose.

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I believe the phrase becomes significantly more polite by adding a simple comma, implying a different intonation:

Thanks, but no, thanks.

Still, I agree with the other answers that this is uncommon style. In this case, it's not necessary to repeat the decline (but no) or the thanks.

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    I'm afraid the comma doesn't fix it. There's just no way to fix "Thanks, but no thanks." There are plenty of other ways to say, "Thanks for the invitation, I really appreciate it! Unfortunately I have a previous commitment and won't be able to make it." – Michael Geary Feb 14 '18 at 5:57
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As a native English speaker, the phrase does not strike me as offensive. It means, "Thanks (for the great offer.) No thanks (because I'm busy.)"

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    Maybe you’ve never come across the idiom before, but that’s definitely not what it means. – Ry- Feb 14 '18 at 10:28
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    Think more along the lines of "thanks for nothing", which is an accusatory and rude phrase - and the "no thanks" comes across just like it in this context. – rackandboneman Feb 15 '18 at 11:53

protected by Massimo Ortolano Feb 11 '18 at 11:02

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