The Lack of Unequivocal Answers in China – Soft No’s and Soft Yes’s

Communication between Chinese and Westerners can often result in misunderstandings. There’s been more than one businessperson who’s thought they’d heard one thing from their Chinese counterpart, when in actuality they’d been told another. Unless you have a good interpreter who can accurately convey what’s being said, and put it into Western terms, what’s being told to you may not be what’s being said. Take for example the simple words no and yes.

Culturally, the Chinese do not like to provide unequivocal answers. They also don’t like to disappoint someone or provide negative news. Negative news offends people and often causes the deliverer to lose face, and the receiver to get mad at the messenger. Moreover, in Chinese society, it’s generally considered rude to say “no.” A Westerner, on the other hand, may very well reply with a simple “no” when he’s asked for a response and the answer is negative. We don’t consider such a response to be rude. Instead, we consider it to be honest and straightforward. However, in China, you’ll almost certainly get an indirect response to a question where the answer is negative. That response is likely to be something like: I’ll have to look into thatI’m not sure we can do thatI’m busy, maybe, or even, in some instances, yes! So in addition to receiving a response that’s not unequivocal, the response you receive may also be totally inaccurate.

For example, you go to a watch repair store in China to have your watch’s battery replaced. The clerk says that he doesn’t currently have the battery in stock. You press him and ask if he can get the battery so that you can pick up your watch the following day. He says “yes.” You return the following day and your watch isn’t ready and you’re angry. Moreover, you learn that he had to order the battery and it’ll take two days to arrive. You’re beside yourself at this point wondering why you were lied to. The clerk, on the other hand, can’t understand your anger as he views himself as just being polite to you, a Westerner, and telling you what you wanted to hear. He didn’t want to disappoint you. While we would consider the clerk’s response to be an out-and-out lie, he would consider it culturally rude to disappoint you when you expected that the watch would be ready the following day. How do you get around this? Probably the best way is to ask questions that will try and provide a more accurate picture of what you’re facing. Ask a question whose response won’t result in not meeting your expectations, as well as not causing the other party to lose face. An informational question. In this example you would ask the clerk: “when will my watch be ready?” This would get you the desired information, “two days”, and yet not put the clerk in a position where he would consider himself rude by telling you “no,” as well as be in a position to disappoint you.

A Chinese response of “yes” can also be misunderstood by Westerners. For example, when a Chinese person nods his head and says “yes,” they may simply be polite. A “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes.” In this case a “yes” would very likely indicate that this person is paying attention to what you’re saying and not necessarily that they’re agreeing with you. They want you to know they’re paying attention. Therefore, many times during a conversation, “yes” merely means: I’m listening and attentive to what you’re saying. It doesn’t mean that I accept what you’re telling me. A real “yes” will many times also be indirectly communicated to you, just as a “no” would be. Culturally, Chinese try and stay away from absolutes and being unequivocal. If they did, they would very likely be unable to change their position without losing face, something that is culturally unacceptable.

Following are a few examples of what you might hear during a conversation when someone is indirectly trying to communicate a “yes” or “no.” If someone is implying agreement, or saying “yes,” they might include one of the following in their sentence: shi (it is so), dui (correct), or hao (okay). If someone is disagreeing, or saying “no,” they might include one of these words in their sentence: bu shi (not), mei you (haven’t), bu dui (wrong), wufa (no way), bing fei (really isn’t), bu yao (don’t want); fei qing (no entry – without an invitation), and fouren (deny). There are actually quite a number of ways to say or give a “yes” or “no” in Mandarin, and some can be taken as absolute. However, these are seldom used. More often, soft “no’s” and “yes’s” are used instead.

Cultural differences and etiquette are the main reasons for the difference between what we believe we hear and what’s actually being communicated. The Chinese believe that direct responses can be impolite. Moreover, using unequivocal terms, such as “no” and “yes” gives them no flexibility. It paints them into a corner. If something goes wrong, taking an unequivocal position can lead to a loss of face, or even one’s job. Communicating directly and unequivocally, which many consider a Western trait, is therefore seldom practiced. Consequently, this leads to both soft “no’s” and soft “yes’s.” The problem is, most foreigners are inexperienced at ferreting out the subtleties in the Chinese language, have little knowledge of the Chinese culture, and therefore have no hope of distinguishing an indirect “yes” or “no.” They take what’s being said as literal. The Chinese take it as indicative and subject to change.

One way to break through this cultural barrier is to ask questions of your Chinese counterpart which will provide you with the real answer. You may have to ask the question in several different ways, as well as frame your questions in such a way as to ferret out the real answer. What’s important to remember is: don’t ask a question where a negative response will result in your disappointment or point out the other party’s inadequacies. If you do, this could cause them lose face. In addition, don’t ask a question which is designed to elicit a speculative response. They’re not going to go out on a limb and give you their gut feel. That’s Western. If you ask a question that calls for speculation, the response you receive will be a soft “no” or a soft “yes.” Therefore, how you frame the question will allow you to discern the real answer by filtering out idiosyncrasies of both culture and etiquette that are uniquely Chinese.


Alan Refkin

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