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I took this phrase from Conversational American English. I.e. the sentence

I have to wash my hair.

I'm familiar with that phrase from a cartoon Spongebob Squarepants (I don't remember the episode) and at first I thought that the phrase is used to tell that the speaker has to go or signals the end of the conversation, I thought so, when Spongebob says that phrase to Sandy when she offers him to be the subject of her research and he runs.

However, in the book I've mentioned earlier, it's listed in a group of sentences entitled turning someone down. Does that mean this phrase is used to reject or say no to an offer? But I still can sense the phrase can be used to say something similar with 'I need to go now'. How is it? I want to prevent something awkward happens when there's someone who doesn't know this phrase and he/she replies 'use my bathroom' instead.

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  • "I'm washing my hair" is the stereotypical excuse women would give for turning down a proposed date - ie, "I'm not available on the night you suggested because I'm busy washing my hair". I've never heard it used to end a conversation. Nov 25 at 7:42
  • It may have started earlier but it was used throughout the 1960s. If the young man persisted, the young woman might ask, 'Can't you take a hint?' Often the conversation went: YM: What are you doing tonight? YW: Washing my hair. YM: What about tomorrow night? YW: Drying it. Nov 25 at 12:03
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In the show, it's used as an intentionally flimsy excuse to leave for the sake of a joke.

"I need to wash my hair" (or any variant of "I need to X my Y" used as an excuse, see I Need To Iron My Dog) is a common comedy trope - the idea is that the character uttering that phrase doesn't actually have an excuse, so they're coming up with something on the spot to get out of the situation.

(In the show specifically, the joke is made more obvious - Spongebob has no hair to wash, so it's even more evident that this is just a made up excuse).

It's not a serious rejection, it's a comical one - it doesn't just imply that you need to go now or that you're turning something down, it implies that you're so terrified of the proposal that you have to resort to making something up.

As such, you wouldn't normally use it in a serious context, as that would be both awkward and very rude:

"Hey, Bob, could you pick my mom up from the airport tomorrow?"

?"I, uh, need to go wash my hair" (I won't and I don't care enough to give you an excuse, I'm treating your request as a joke)

You'd only use it if you knew the other person was in on the joke and that they were not serious about their proposal:

"Hey, Bob, my grandma just got divorced, should I set you up on a date with her?"

"I, uh, need to go wash my hair" (I'm treating your request as a joke - but that's fine, since it was a joke in the first place)

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