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I Want the Truth!

When the 17th century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote: Vérité en-deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà. (“There are truths on this side of the Pyrénées which are falsehoods on the other”  translation, Geerte Hofstede), he wasn’t just saying that the Pyrenees mountain range accounted for the differences between Spanish and French viewpoints. He meant that truth is subjective.

In the US, we generally adhere to an “absolutist” or “Manichean” system of ethics. Behaviors are divided into right and wrong, or good and evil, and many US citizens use the Ten Commandments when they make those judgments. The eighth, “Thou shalt not lie,” applies to our perception of the truth. Philosophically, we believe lying is wrong. Perhaps that is why it is so disturbing to US executives when international associates seem to feign interest in commitments, but don’t always follow through.

Avoid “No,” “Nyet,” and “Bu!”

If you couldn’t figure it out, “Bu” is Mandarin for “No.” But whatever the language, in many cultures, bluntly saying “No” is anathema. The word itself is so widely recognized, that it has gotten English speakers who overuse it into trouble.

During final contract negotiations in China, the vice president of a US firm was acknowledging each minor change in the document with the catchphrase “No problem.”  Suddenly, the Chinese director stood up, slammed his papers down, and walked out. The stunned US VP was puzzled but relieved when the Chinese director and his translator returned, smiling. The translator explained that when Director Chen was trying to follow the conversation in English, he picked up on the word “No” in “No problem” and assumed that the US executive was negating each request, rather than agreeing to them all.

In India, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, the word “No” has commensurately harsh implications. It is considered dismissive, insulting, and upsets the harmony of the workplace. Since business is highly personal in these countries, people try hard not to say it, nor do they expect to hear it from their associates.

There are at least twelve ways of actually saying “No” in Bahasa Indonesian, and many more ways to communicate “I’m saying yes, but I really mean no” as well. Unfortunately these subtleties are lost in English, and Westerners often interpret the polite permutations of “yes” as deceitful.

Every culture has phrases, gestures or behaviors that communicate disagreement to their peers. While they are somewhat interchangeable, here are Three Subtle Ways to Say “No!” in three countries. See if you can match them up:

I’ll try…A. Brazil

This could be difficult…B. India

Just leave this with me…C. Japan


B. Whether it’s an invitation to a meeting at work, or a party on the weekend, “I’ll try” is a polite, common way of saying “No, I’m not coming” in India.

C. Preserving a tranquil, harmonious environment is important in Japan. It is a subtle, high-context society, where a great deal of information is transmitted nonverbally, so actually making an overt statement like “Ah, this could be difficult” is akin to “Absolutely no way!” in the US.

A. Being viewed as simpatico is highly desirable in Brazil. Since relationships are so vital, Brazilians may suppress unpleasant facts in order to protect the feelings of the people they value. If you are trying to discern whether a Brazilian is not interested in an offer, listen for a statement like #3, #2, or “It is complicated…”

Evade the Question

“How old are you?” “How much do you earn?” “Do you have any children?” These “outrageous” questions insulted a female US executive during a recent trip to Asia and India. She did not realize that people may ask personal questions in different countries to ascertain hierarchical structures, bestow appropriate honorifics or build personal relationships (which are a prerequisite for work relationships). Instead, she took umbrage, and responded firmly to their “intrusive” inquiries with “We really do not discuss those topics in our firm. You know, you could be liable for harassment in the States, etc…”  Needless to say, her curt replies cut short the small talk, and the sales.

What should she have said? If she did not want to tell them the truth, she could have responded with an off-topic remark, like “You know, I love sports, but know absolutely nothing about cricket. It is very popular here in India, isn’t it?” Indian (or Japanese, or Chinese) executives are not obtuse. They will pick up on an evasive move, take it as a negative response, and will diplomatically follow your lead. Similarly, if your prospects change the topic when you pose a question, that’s your clue that it’s off-limits.  

By Terri Morrison

Terri Morrison is a speaker and co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries and Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Sales & Marketing. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of the Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Database – available          through McGraw-Hill Digital. Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Telephone (610) 725-1040.