Saying “no” in a China work environment can be a kamikaze move that will greatly harm your relationships with colleagues and bosses. Chinese people are known for being indirect when offering refusals, especially in a business situation. Here I’ll explain a few of the ways Chinese people squirm around saying “no”, and what they really mean. (Hint: They always mean “no”.)
In Chinese society, respecting a person’s “face” is paramount to sustaining relationships. A direct attack on a person usually leads to an undesirable faux pas. Moreover, directly saying “no” to someone in a China work situation can lead to unintended problems and maybe even grudges. Chinese people also believe that by avoiding the direct refusal of others, mutual respect may be maintained.
To the Chinese, being vague and indirect is a part of everyday life; it’s not just how they disguise refusals, but also how they communicate in general. Traditionally, Chinese people speak euphemistically and don’t always clarify their literal meaning, which often relies much upon the interpretation of the listener.
Chinese learners and speakers are well aware of the complexity of Mandarin and the multiple meanings a character, or even a mere tonal change, can carry. A great deal of spoken Chinese therefore relies on context, which makes it hard to comprehend to the outsider.
You’ll find when working in China that you might not always get a yes/no answer to a question you posed. If you live in China and understand Chinese, your ears will have become accustomed to the tried-and-trusted phrase 随便 (suí biàn), which can mean “anytime, anywhere, anything” or simply, “whatever”, and is used in a plethora of different situations.
To add further confusion and uncertainty, Chinese people will often reply 我不确定 (Wǒ bù quèdìng —I’m not sure) or 也许 (Yěxǔ — Maybe) when they are faced with something they don’t want to deal with.
An overused way of refusing someone in a China work environment is to show embarrassment in an exaggerated fashion. This is a great system for getting out of things you don’t want to do while helping to preserve the respect between the two speakers.
A signal phrase for this method will start 不好意思… (bù hǎo yì sī – It’s embarrassing), which may be intensified by using 真/很 (zhēn/hěn – really/very), to express further sincerity, of course.
In a work situation, a lack of authority can be a great get-out clause. Chinese workers may pass the responsibility of undertaking a request or making a decision to their boss or supervisor, citing their personal lack of seniority as the cause.
我能力不够，其实XX更适合 (wǒ néng lì bù gòu, qí shí XX gēng shì hé – I’m not good enough to do it, actually XX is more capable). This phrase might not be rolled out because the speaker actually lacks authority, but because they just don’t care to fulfill your request. It’s a great one to use in situations where someone requires your help with something you think will be difficult.
Another conflict avoiding, mutual face-saving way of refusing someone in a China work situation is to simply change the subject. You’ll know when this method is in action as a request will be followed by a short pause and then a swift change in topic. Chinese people will rarely return to press the original request as they’ll be well aware of the connotations of changing the subject in this manner.
A final way of saying “no” is by continuously putting things off. If you’ve ever approached a Chinese colleague with a request and they replied “let’s talk about it tomorrow” or “next time”, this usually means no, or at least that they’re going to keep putting it off until you give up asking.
我想一想 / 考虑一下 (wǒ xiǎng yī xiǎng/ kǎo lǜ yī xià – Let me think about it/I’ll consider it) : If you approach your supervisor with an idea and they reply in this manner, it means “No, but I just can’t bring myself to tell you that”. There’s no point chasing them up later for an answer. If you do, you’ll just get the same reply until eventually they actually tell it to you straight.
改天吧 / 下次吧 (gǎi tiān bā/ xià cì ba – another time/next time): Don’t take this literally. This is just another way of letting you down lightly. Save yourself the embarrassment and don’t follow up.
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Keywords: China work
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