As I come from the United States where speaking one’s mind — sometimes too directly – is the expected norm, it is a straight-forward task to decline an offer or otherwise simply say “No” when you mean it. However, as I have learned through experience, in Japan it can be difficult to determine when someone is saying “No” to you and even more difficult to reject an offer diplomatically.
So, what should you do? You certainly cannot agree to absolutely every request, or else quickly become over-committed. Alternatively, especially if you are from a Western country, acting exactly the same way that you would at home could earn you a reputation for being too blunt.
Besides being patient, there are a few techniques that you can employ to improve communications with your Japanese friends, colleagues and customers.
Understand that saying “No” is an art form
First it is important to understand why the seemingly simple task of saying “No” can be somewhat complicated in Japan. The underlying reason is related to how Japanese people are acutely tuned into their social status relative to whomever they are speaking. Clearly stating “No” to someone of a lower status is acceptable, but there is an eagerness to avoid conflict among people of equal status and certainly a strong desire to prevent someone of higher status from being put into a situation where they could lose face. Thus, by directly denying a request from your boss, a colleague at work or a customer, you could cause the person who made the request to become embarrassed — a real social faux pas in Japan.
How do you tell when a Japanese person is attempting to say “No” to you?
How do you tell when a Japanese person is attempting to say “No” to you? While it takes a bit of practice to become aware of what is happening, a telltale sign is when this person does not affirm your suggestion and/or does not respond “Yes” directly. If they seem to be hemming and hawing rather than directly acknowledging you, it most likely means that they are not in agreement. You may hear the terms 検討させてくださいkento sasete kudsai・I will consider it or 考えておきますkangaeteokimasu・Let me think it over.
Don’t get your hopes up, as the person who told you that has no real intention of considering anything beyond this point.
Another indication of denial is the phrase ちょっと chotto followed by a period of awkward silence. Chotto typically means “a little” but in this context conveys “That’s not possible.” When confronted with such a situation, it is usually best to return to the beginning of the conversation and ask a series of open-ended questions that will not provoke just a simple “Yes” or “No” response. You need to get them to open up and explain their feelings. The objective is to get a better idea of how the person with whom you are talking feels about a particular proposal. Essentially, you need to do your homework in advance to be reasonably confident that your counterpart will respond affirmatively prior to actually making a request. This is hard work but worth it in the end.
Ah hell naw
What happens when the tables are turned and you would like to decline tactfully? One of the most common situations that many foreigners face in the workplace is an invitation to an after-hours party with colleagues which often involves alcohol. You may not always be interested in joining. If you do join, you may not want to drink. There is, of course, a big difference between declining such an invitation once or twice vs. never accepting the opportunity to interact with one’s peers outside of the office.
When I consulted my Japanese colleagues about how to pass on such a request, at first there was dead silence. The thought simply did not cross their minds, as this aspect of socializing with colleagues is so ingrained in Japanese workplace culture. Although it’s okay to decline respectfully once or twice, if you never accept such an offer, it would most likely lead to ostracism. The best advice that I was given was to tell a white lie such as, “Sorry I can’t because it’s my (insert relative here)’s birthday.”
Naturally, one must be very careful not to use the same excuse too often. The bottom line is that participation at after-hours office parties is simply a fact of life in Japan. If you want to be accepted by your colleagues, please understand that it is simply par for the course to attend at least the first round of a party at a restaurant. It is generally a bit easier to decline an invitation to go to the second round at a karaoke bar, for example.
If you want to be accepted by your colleagues in Japan, please understand that it is simply par for the course to attend at least the first round of a party at a restaurant.
No pints, please!
Let’s assume that you decide to go along for the ride, but you do not want to drink alcohol. When I asked my colleagues about this situation during a round of drinks after work, their initial response was a burst of laughter and exclamations of “Good luck with that!” Once again their practical advice involved suggestions to use the excuse of having a health exam the next day, your body’s metabolism simply does not allow you to drink alcohol or the need to refrain from alcohol to prepare for an upcoming sporting event (e.g., running a marathon). By using the sports option, you may inadvertently uncover a common interest with another colleague.
My co-workers stressed that if you really do not want to drink alcohol at such an event, then the most important thing to do is to stick with non-alcoholic drinks right from the beginning. If you take just a little bit at the beginning of the party, then it makes it much easier for a colleague who is particularly enthusiastic about ensuring that everyone is getting enough to drink to push you to drink more and more. Thus you need to establish early on that, while you’re going to have fun and join in the conversation, you are going to stick with non-alcoholic beverages for the duration.
Non-communication is key
Regarding the general concept of defying the social norm and having the courage to say “No” from time to time, it is also important to note that not everyone in Japan will react in the same way. Especially among Japanese people who have had extensive experience studying and/or working abroad or have close relations with foreigners, their communication may mimic what you are used to. Such people may already be conditioned to the fact that most non-Japanese will expect more direct communication and, therefore, they will adapt their style to your perceived needs.
At the end of the day you will probably find that being aware of the general tendency of Japanese people to avoid conflict and, therefore, communicate somewhat ambiguously will help you to pick-up on when someone is trying to decline an offer and allow you to communicate more effectively. This, in turn, will help you to find a way to get them to say “Yes!”