Is It Rude To Say “No”? Yes, But…

Mr. LiI remember the day well when Mr. Li smiled at me and said, “In China, we never say ‘no’ because it is considered rude.”

“How do you say ‘no’ then?” I asked.

“We have a very clever way to say ‘no,’” he responded.

More on that in just a minute.

We’ve been talking about leading a multi-cultural team. In Part 1, we had some important introductory thoughts. In Part 2, we talked about high/low context communication. Last time, in Part 3, we talked about direct/indirect communication. Today, I want to continue the discussion about direct and indirect communication with an personal example of how I learned an important lesson on this topic.

Mr Li was the middleman between me and the university where I used to teach and now hosted our private language school that I had founded. We had spent many hours and years together and he had become a good friend. I would often sit in his office and learn about Chinese culture from the things he told me and the things I observed. I enjoyed my time with him greatly.

One day he told me that Chinese people never directly say “no.” This surprised me because nobody can say “yes” to everything, so I questioned him for a deeper answer. He told me it was easy to say “no” without really saying “no.”

Then he told me the secret: Always answer, “yes, but…”

When someone asks you to do something and you can’t or don’t want to do it, simply answer, “Yes, but…” and give some kind of objection or explanation.

This is a classic example of the type of indirect communication I talked about in the last post. Direct communicators are very likely to say “no” if they can’t or won’t do something. Indirect communicators will not say so directly, but will expect the listener to understand the “no” from the context.

Mr. Li taught me a great lesson and I used it often in my next few years in China. After I would give a lecture, inevitably visiting students from other universities approach me after the lecture and would ask me to give a lecture at their university. My answer would be something like, “Yes, of course, but I am very busy in the days ahead. Please talk to me again later about it.”

Indirect communication. I didn’t say “no” in so many words, but the student clearly understood that I was actually declining the offer. Good communication isn’t easy, but it can be fun!

Question for discussion: If someone would ask to borrow your car but you don’t want to let them borrow it, how would you say that in a direct communication style? An indirect communication style? Please post your thoughts and answers.

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