The power of "No"

We’re always being encouraged to say yes, to take on new opportunities and avoid being the one to break up everyone’s fun with a frank “um, actually…no”. But is this yes culture really beneficial? There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Yes means nothing until you say no’. In other words, if you always say yes, it has no value.

But for all but the most thick-skinned of us, giving a blunt ‘no’ can be difficult. Knowing how and when to say no requires fine judgement. And this becomes more complicated when you factor in the cultural sensitivities of different people, languages and countries. Finding the right way to say no without causing offence is key, as an old joke from the Berliner Tageblatt shows:

“When a diplomat says “yes,” he means “perhaps.” When a diplomat says “perhaps,” he means “no.” And when a diplomat says “no,” he is no diplomat.”

Yes but no…

In Japan, saying no is often perceived as being rude in a culture where showing respect for your elders and seniors is paramount. Instead, the Japanese have cultivated other ways to say no or to air a dissenting view, some of which have more to do with body language than oral language. Of course this trait isn’t unique to Japanese culture. The English commitment to appearing polite by offering opinions masked in a fog of ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ is known to drive other nations mad. And understanding the message within can be a particular challenge for cultures such as Germany and Russia, where language opacity is viewed as a flaw.

Bill Rivers, the executive director for the US Joint National Committee for Languages highlighted one problem of the English language, explaining: “We've a cultural tendency to look for quick solutions”. Indeed, some argue that languages that avoid being hedged into an immediate yes/no answer and take a more circuitous approach in addressing an issue create a more intelligent platform for problem solving.

In any situation, being sensitive to the meaning behind language can go a long way; not only is there inherent value in being able to say no, but also in knowing how to say it. And cultural understanding is key, as this old but persuasive gem from HSBC points out. 


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