Asking “No” Questions- How Could it be so Hard? Culture Lesson #10

It is easier to draw blood from a turnip or shake millions from the money tree than to gain a negative answer to a question from a Japanese person. When faced with unusual, off-putting and uncomfortable Ouiser questions, many of my Japanese friends cock their heads to the side, half-smile and say ,”Un” which is a polite way of not answering. In fact, it is not culturally acceptable to say “No” out right. Instead, another form of answer is given which answers the question correctly. Western cultures tend to be more verbally based- dependent on words to convey communication content of the conversation- whereas Eastern cultures place additional emphasis on body language to convey the content of messages being conveyed in a conversation. Luckily for me, I was raised in an extremely dysfunctional household and am a master at reading facial cues, bodily directed insults, and all attempts at masked deceit. In the case of the Japanese, the avoidance of “no” preserves the other person’s feelings and dignity leading to group harmony. This preserves the culture of Wa, (read post on Wa here) focus on the feeling of others over one’s self and maintain peace within the group. When asking a question where no would be an appropriate response, many times, alternatives are given. So, how does this play out?

Take a simple example where “no” is not used:

Ouiser: “Do you have red hats?”

Clerk:   “We have blue hats,” or “Red hats are sold across the street.”

Following this same example, out right dislike or strong negative feelings are inappropriate to express.  As another example, let’s say I try on this hat:

Vogue Vintage Jewels- Ruby Lane

Nihongo Breakthrough – My Japanese textbook- suggests I handle my dislike of this “ill-fitting” hat in the following manner:

“This hat is too small for my large hair style. I’ll come back later.” Interestingly, there is a word “Un” prior to the phrase “I’ll come back later” which implies dislike but translates as the act of thinking. My Japanese sensei taught me to cock my head in the Japanese style and draw the word out as if I were deliberating when I would return to the store. I’ve now been taught both the words and the body language to imply dislike without saying so. Both the clerk and I know the hat will not leave the store on my head. But- I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings by expressing my dislike of blue feathers.

Looking at the ubiquitous foreigners’ hand held Japanese Bible below one will notice that when asked “How are you?” none of the answers are “Terrible.” At worst, So-so, surviving, and things are tough. Even if these text books are wrong, we’re all being reprogrammed to be nicer and less whiney. That’s a win-win. Could be a Japanese plot to make the foreigners easier to live with.

Now for more difficult questions. An unanswered question had been pestering me and I’m certain my readers as well. I needed the answer to this critical question which would be avoided by a society too polite to answer it.

There was only one person who might be willing to answer this question.

Even my Japanese sensei would shy away from this most delicate question.

I needed to belly up to the bar and ask.

I approached Andretti-san- keeper of all cultural knowledge, language coach, and fastest driver in the East.

“Andretti-san, what do the Japanese find funny about Westerners?”

Silence as he pondered this question of the ages. That was a good sign. He was going to give me an answer.

“Many times Westerners bow with their hands in a prayer position- they must see that in cartoons. Japanese people think that is very funny.”

AAHH- very insightful. Bowing in Japan is of utmost importance and done through out the day. The proper way to bow is to bend from the waist with a straight back, arms stretched along the side of the body. The hands are not held in prayer position. The deeper the bow, the more respect shown. Women place hands on top of the thighs. A formal bow would be executed at a 45 degree angle while an informal greeting bow would be done at 15 degrees. It is highly impolite not to bow when someone bows to you. Here’s a cartoon version.

Photobucket Image

On a visit to Japan there will be lots of opportunity to practice bowing. Spouse has been very busy at work, hopefully he will miss this post. I have been known to become a favorite at certain department stores and shops due to an inability to control my need versus want equilibrium. Lately, the want has gotten its way. In Japan, when an amount of money is spent that elicits feelings of extreme gratitude from the salesperson, said salesperson carries one’s bag to the door of the shop, hands it to the buyer outside the door for everyone to see, and bows many times in thanks. There’s no wrestling the bag away from the grateful sales person and no avoiding the ritual. Everyone along the street now knows you just dropped some serious cash. Now you know when this happens to you not to bow and worship this person who is thanking you sincerely for your business.

An interesting topic for another post is the dichotomy between the older and younger generations in these culturally held traditions of communication. I would love to hear comments from you on the views of saying no and how it differs from your parents/grandparents. Also, those of you who have traveled or lived in Japan- have you noticed this?

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17 Responses to Asking “No” Questions- How Could it be so Hard? Culture Lesson #10

  1. Outside Narita, where you’ll recall I pummeled follow passengers with my many over-loaded bags, and a VERY brief night at an airport hotel, I have no expereince in Japan. However, I HAVE experienced this in other Asian countries, Thailand, S. Korea, Vietnam, and India. I wonder if there is any Asian country where this is not the case. By the way, Haitians seem happy enough to say “no.”


  2. Emiel says:

    Great post! I so much remember the word ‘un’ from my stay in Japan. But I guess ‘un’ also have different meanings (just to make it more complicated..). It can also be a kind of way to express understanding while you speak. People don’t want to stay silent for long and ‘un’ means they are still with you.
    Anyway, love to read your story. What an interesting culture it is.


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  4. Michi says:

    Again, super itching to make my way to Japan and see all these cultural tidbits for myself! I loved this post, and I continue to love your observations. 🙂


  5. Hope they do use the word “no” when a “no” is really called for! Wonder what they say to their kids?!


    • amblerangel says:

      There’s a concept in Japanese culture called “Face.” The public face- the one that is shown to the public, is not necessarily representative of what is really felt. It is called Tatemae. The private face is called Honne and represents the true face. In this post, my guess is that I’m getting the Tatemae face- a public, polite face that doesn’t represent the person’s true feelings. At home, I’m sure they use the Honne face and “no” would definitely be used in that case. It’s very interesting and very hard for foreigners to understand. One never knows which face you’re seeing.


    • Karla Bravo says:

      In case a child is doing something bad they just say “stop”, the tone and politeness gives out the anger level. XD

      Another example is if they refuse to go on a date or a place or something they just say “sore wa chyotto” which means “that is a little…” which its understood as a polite “No thanks”


  6. Lisa Sandy says:

    🙂 Japanese people also find shrugging funny- since they don’t do it. I remember shrugging once and the Japanese people with me did a double take and laughed. I believe they had previously thought “Americans don’t really do that- right?”.


  7. Not too far off from the Indian side-ways head-shake meant neither to suggest a yes or a no as a response 🙂


    • amblerangel says:

      I always thought body launguage was the same all over the world until I went to Italy, now I realize- especially in the East and India- it’s a whole different ballgame! Thanks for sharing.


  8. Pierotucci says:

    What a great post! I remember my 4 month stay in Osaka was chalked full of polite non answers, which in turn only made me more curious to know the answer. Italian culture is full of “no”, and the hand-gestures! forget about it! After 1.5 years i’m still learning the gesture ropes. Love your blog, and writing style! thanks for sharing your experiences!


    • amblerangel says:

      Thanks so much! I’m constantly learning- and making mistakes as you can see but having a blast along the way. Loved your comment! So true about the Italians- and the Clampitts! Thanks for stopping by.


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