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I remember when friends who live a few hours from here invited us to spend my husband's upcoming birthday with them. At the time of the invitation, that sounded like a definite "yes." Sometimes, however, as an event draws closer, things change.

Our friends called a few weeks later to complete final arrangements for our visit. By the end of the conversation, I think they were a bit bothered and bewildered about all the stars that must align for this visit to take place.

We confessed that instead of visiting with them that particular weekend, we would probably be out of town celebrating the day with our son. Because our son lives within an hour's drive of their home, they kindly suggested that we ask if he would like to join us.

It's not that easy. People's work schedules aren't always a given, and we explained that we just couldn't know our son's schedule in advance. They understood and suggested that if possible, we might still work things out.

Yes, but then there was our new little kitten, Finnegan. What kind of pet owners leave a baby kitten? Who would look after him? Again, when we were initially making plans, this wasn't an issue, but now we had a new responsibility, and I wasn't sure what to do.

We apologized profusely as we tried to explain our situation. So went the discussion with our friends until finally one of them declared, "I didn't know you two carried so much baggage into your retirement years!" It was true.

So when and how do we say "no"? Is it always necessary to paint the entire picture for people, or should we just be able to say, "No, I don't think that is going to work for us."

Often, I find myself rambling on, feeling awkward about declining a request. For instance, "I'd love to come, but we have guests arriving next week, and that is my only time to get the house ready."

Or, "I'm sorry, but I can't serve on your committee. We're just too focused on landscaping the backyard right now" ... and off I go giving too much information.

As a culture, we aren't the best at saying "No." Why can't we just say, "No thanks, but thanks for asking." Period. That's all. Polite and to the point. No one needs a soliloquy on our lives.

It's the same when I get those pesky robocalls. Instead of trying to explain to some stranger my reasons not to support his or her organization or rationalize why I don't need my house painted or a roof estimate, why don't I just say, "No thank you."

I remember one day as a young girl I was visiting my grandmother. The doorbell rang, and my grandmother's neighbor appeared with a casserole to share. My grandmother thanked her and took the casserole. "I'm not going to eat that casserole," she explained to me later, but I didn't want to hurt my neighbor's feelings. Sometimes, it's more important to be polite and spare a person's feelings than to tell the truth." I have never forgotten her comment and still struggle with its correctness.

So how do we deal with a kind gesture or invitation from a friend or family member that misses the intended target? For instance, your mother-in-law knits you yet another Christmas sweater, and you haven't worn the last three. Your neighbor shows up with that casserole, and you feel awkward explaining that you're gluten free, a vegetarian or just plain squeamish about eating other people's food.

All this puts our character to the test. Our character defines who we really are from the inside out. It's how we treat others; it's what we say and what we practice. We need to be sure the best side of our character is on display when dealing with such awkward situations. "That trip we said 'yes' to months ago just won't work out at this time."

Or ... "Although I'm a vegetarian, my granddaughter really enjoyed the chicken casserole you brought over."

Or ..."I have plenty of knitted sweaters now, but here's the address of a worthwhile organization that I know would appreciate your knitting skills."

"So when are you coming to Santa Fe this summer?" my cousin asks during a recent phone call. My husband wants to be polite, and so he awkwardly plunges in and starts discussing the possibilities for such a trip.

But he and I have already talked about this and have agreed this summer is going to be too busy to plan any trips. I stop him. "Linda, we aren't coming to Santa Fe this summer, but would love to extend an invitation for you to visit us here in the Midwest sometime in the future."

No hemming and hawing. Keep it simple. Keep it honest. Remember, our character counts.

Donna Reed is the author of "My Voice," essays on the warm and funny moments of life. She lives in Champaign.