June 7, 2013 Harold Tor

The Art of Saying ‘No’: ‘Naying’ Among the British, the Belgians and the Chinese

Having lived in Belgium for more than a decade, I have come to notice the *Northern Belgians’ penchant for anything British: British TV, British comedians, British humour, British soaps… I guess it comes from the steady diet of BBC television and the often undubbed telecast of BBC programmes on Belgian channels, the country being such a small market itself.

 

Instead of saying No, People say Yes

However, this adoration stops short at their inability to understand why the British cannot ‘speak directly’. Florid expressions just have to attach themselves to simple, direct questions or answers, such as:

Could you tell me...? ’ instead of ‘What/When/Where is…?’.

Would you mind…?’ instead of ‘Just do it’.

Is it possible…?’ instead of ‘Do it’.

‘The British are incapable of direct speech,’ so say the Belgians.

True to a large extent, the British often adorn their sentences with expressions to make them more polite, as a way of showing respect to the other party and that one is not being obtrusive or interruptive.

The Belgians on the other hand, show similar social handicap when it comes to saying no. The Northern Belgians often claim that the Dutch, their linguistic brothers, are too direct, because of Calvinism. But for whatever reason, Belgians will try their best to avoid a socially-awkward situation by not saying no, but not only that, they say yes. Which leads to a lot of confusion afterwards.

I have personally experienced thousands of cases, but I shall cite three examples for you:

1) I contacted a property agent to sell my apartment in Antwerp. Everything went according to the plan, we met up and had a chat and he seemed like a pleasant guy. We even chatted about him meeting up with his sister afterwards. We parted very affably and I had the (misguided) idea that I had found a great guy for the job. But no. He never returned my emails. Never answered my calls. Never returned my calls. I thought he was dead. I checked out his website and found that it was still being updated. It turned out that (or rather, I concluded that) he never wanted to take the job, but he did not want to tell it in my face.

2) There is this guy at the gym, who talks a lot and seemed friendly enough. He claims he knows tons of people and has great contacts, and he would be able to help me disseminate my CV. Despite being unabashedly boastful, he seemed to be ‘just saying it’. I thanked him profusely but he never answered my emails. He was not sincere in the first place, I concluded, so he should have let me know directly instead of being shy about it.

3) Then I met this recruiter, a tall gentle lady from a very international company. She and I had a nice little talk at this event and I left with a nice feeling when she said I should just send her my CV and she would look at what positions are available for me in such a large group. A month went passed, and I did not even receive at the very least an acknowledgement of receipt. I only recently realised that the parting note was just a formality for her to avoid seeing my disappointment.

Over to the other end of the Eurasian landmass, the Chinese are often derided by the Europeans for not being able to say no. Funnily enough, the Belgians often join in the laughs. Perhaps it has been an overdue case of lost in translation for the Europeans. Being genetically and culturally attuned to Chinese languages and customs, I think it is either the fault of the translators or a stubborn lack of understanding on the part of the Europeans.

Like the British and the Belgians, the Chinese are very aware of the social awkwardness in a nay-saying scenario.

There is an expression in Mandarin – “给你一个台阶下” – meaning “to give you some steps to go down”. The word 台阶 refers to both the doorsteps of your front door and the steps leading up to a stage or a platform. So the expression means that one has to say no in such a way that the other party does not ‘fall off the stage (ungracefully)’.

Hence, the Chinese often smile and not say no, but (take note) they do not say yes either (contrary to the Northern Belgians). They will say things like ‘We will seriously consider your proposal’, ‘We will take your suggestion back for a serious discussion’, ‘Thank you for the feedback/support/the time’. Most of the time, they use the word 好 which means ‘good’, but it also denotes ‘end’ or ‘finish’ – a subtle indication of the wish to terminate this social situation.

Being an Anglophone, I am more inclined towards the British way of saying no. Among the three countries cited, they are the most courageous in telling you it is a no, and yet they frame it in such a way that the situation remains polite and pleasant (by blaming themselves) [Much like in a breakup situation where the cheater says ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.]:

I am sorry, but… ‘, ‘I am afraid I have to say no to… ‘, ‘It is not possible for me to accept...’, ‘It would be a bit of an issue for me..’

I can go on and on about how creative they are in saying no.

Being such anglophiles, I wonder how much more time it will take for the Belgians to learn the British way of saying no, the wonderful customer service and the simple but much desired art of queuing.

*Note: I have used the term ‘Northern Belgians’ to avoid, at all costs, the current but historically-inaccurate and etymologically-inadequate term ‘Flemish’. I could have used the term ‘Dutch-speaking Belgians’ or ‘French-speaking Belgians’ but that would be pandering to this country’s abhorrent political habit of branding a person because of his linguistic skills – skills which I think should be applauded rather than demonised. My examples of course cannot be generalised to every citizen of the country, and certainly do not apply to a large part of the population in the south.

 

*Postscript:

1) Several readers have reflected to me that in their past dealings with China, the Chinese always say ‘yes’, because they aim to mislead you into thinking that they agree with you. It could be true, depending on individual cases. But I’d like to point out the difference in language and customs here: When the Chinese say ‘yes’, they think in their heads the word ‘Shi’ 是, which means ‘yes, I understand’, not ‘yes I agree with you or to your request’. If they mean the latter, they would use the word ‘Hao’ 好, whose meaning ranges from ‘yes’, ‘ok’, ‘good’, ‘great’ to what pointed out in the article – ‘completed’. Someone should teach the Chinese the very useful, but annoying and superficially engaging Americanism: ‘Yeah… Yeah… Oh yeah?… Yeah…’

2) Last but not least, the article is a general thought based on my personal experiences, not a blanket generalisation that covers everyone and every situation, certainly not in informal ones where most people freely say no.

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