When doing business or living in China, it is inevitable that one will, from time to time, be forced to say no, to deny a request, or to offer criticism. However, in Chinese society, which emphasizes respecting people’s Face and maintaining important relationships, saying no directly can lead to unintended problems.

As a rule, the Chinese are much more vague and indirect than Westerners. By understanding the different ways in which the Chinese indirectly refuse others, Western business people in China will have several advantages. First, when speaking with Chinese employees, superiors, friends and family members, recognizing a vague refusal can lead to an earlier comprehension and reduce the potential danger caused by misinformation. Second, understanding the Chinese indirect methods of refusal can allow Western business people to apply them to their own conversations and negotiations with the Chinese. By saying no in the Chinese way, the feelings of the Chinese can be spared, allowing for a more effective working relationship.

Below, several common methods of saying “no” in China are presented for the education of interested Western businesspeople and travelers, so as to be more able to effectively communicate with the Chinese.

Express Embarrassment

One of the more common methods of saying no in China is to begin a refusal by expressing one’s own embarrassment at the situation. This is stated in an exaggerated fashion, with the person saying no acting as if they are inconveniencing the person they are saying no to. The goal here is to placate the person being spoken to and to give them an extra measure of respect so as to not cause them to lose face or feel unappreciated. This method might be used to get out of going to lunch with a coworker or declining to help a friend with a favor.

“Oh my gosh, I’m SO embarrassed! I completely forgot about having lunch with you today.  I’ll definitely make it up to you tomorrow, ok?” (哎呀,太不好意思,我完全忘记今天与你吃饭的计划,明天我是一定会补偿你的!)

Be Roundabout and Vague

Another way to say no in China, without unduly offending a Chinese person, is by being roundabout and vague. In other words this means not giving a direct reply. The Chinese often use terms such as “I’m not sure,” “maybe,” and “perhaps.” In addition, other words which in Western cultures express assent or understanding can in China be used to be noncommittal  These include words such as  “I understand,” “sure,” and “I know.” In practice, there are two ways vague language can be used in this regard. First is when one does not want to damage the Face of a Chinese person. Second is when one wants to protect oneself from negative consequences of overtly supporting or agreeing with another. One example could be a manager who does not want to directly reject the idea of a subordinate and thus cause them to lose Face in front of coworkers. Using vague language can allow the manager to put the issue on hold until his or she is better prepared to handle it.

Make Excuses – You Need to Confer With Your Boss

A common method in the Chinese business community to say no (or aid in negotiations) is to pass the blame for making a decision to one’s boss or superior. With this method of saying no, although a Chinese person might say no more directly than at other times, they to a degree are able to remove responsibility from themselves. This method serves to protect the relationship between two people (e.g. salesman and client) even when saying no directly is unavoidable. In fact, it is common for small business owners to display a lower level position (such as senior consultant or senior manager) on their business cards expressly for the purpose of using this tactic and allowing greater flexibility in negotiations.

Tell a “White Lie”

It’s important to remember that saving Face for the Chinese has little to do with the truth and everything to do with personal feelings and prestige. The Chinese try to protect the Face of friends and coworkers by hiding the truth and replacing it with something less embarrassing or negative. For example, when an outing has been planned with friends or family, not attending because one “ doesn’t want to” would cause hurt feelings or anger. It is much more acceptable to the Chinese way of thinking to claim that one has to work overtime to prevent hurting the feelings of a friend. Likewise, when unwilling to work overtime or attend a conference a Chinese employee might tell their superior that their parents have fallen ill, and thus cannot attend.

“I’m sorry John, I just found out that my wife’s parents are coming to visit Shanghai this weekend. They expect me to show them around the city and I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend the conference with you. I really wanted to go with you but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.” (John,很对不起你,我刚刚发现下周末我岳父岳母都会来参观一下上海,再说他们期待我我来带路。我本来很想与你一起参与那个会议,但现在我好像是没办法的。) 

Put Things Off

One Chinese method of saying no, which causes misunderstandings for Western sales and business development professionals, is the Chinese tendency to put things on hold, or to claim to be busy. For example, when a Chinese company does not want to meet with a salesperson it is common for the salesperson to be told to “call back in a few months.” In many cases, this simply means that the company is not interested in a meeting. In the above example, it is of course likely that the company doesn’t care about the Face of the salesperson, they would simply rather be indirect. However, putting things on hold can also be used to try and preserve the feelings of a friend or coworker. If a good friend asks for a loan of a large amount of money, a Chinese person would likely rather try and put things on hold for a few months rather than embarrass their friend by saying no.

Offer a Positive before a Negative

When one has to say something less than positive to a subordinate, this method can be used to mitigate a potentially bad reaction. For example, if one needs to say no to an employee that asks for a promotion, it might be a good idea to first praise their hard work and their contributions to the team/company. When it is necessary to criticize a certain area in an employee’s performance that needs to be improved, one can first highlight areas in which they excelled. In this manner the employee’s Face and they will less likely to feel humiliated in front of their coworkers.

Final Thoughts

Although Chinese people are not always politely indirect when speaking with one another, it is common enough behavior within the Chinese business and social environments to merit study by Westerners. And while the actual practice of saying no appropriately does indeed take some practice, there are several key categories to saying no which the Western business person in China should try to remember.  These are 1) padding the truth, 2) telling white lies, and 3) being roundabout and vague. Taking heed of these three methods will allow Westerners to be more able to communicate effectively with the Chinese as well as to understand them quicker and with less difficulty.

Lastly, while it is true that many Westerners may recognize some of the above methods for saying no from their own experience in Western society, there is an important distinction that one should understand. While most Westerners may at times be vague and indirect, this is not the norm and usually clashes with Western society’s concepts regarding honesty and the truth. Chinese society is the opposite. To the Chinese, being vague and indirect is a part of everyday life and it not only colors they way they offer refusals, but also how they communicate in general.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any additional questions about how to say no or refuse someone in China? Do you have any additional tips or suggestions based on your own experience? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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