When “YES” doesn’t mean YES

Some years ago, I was in China to take part in a student exchange program. On the first orientation day, approximately 100 international students from over 30 countries meet the university’s staff to introduce the country, the school, campus, and the life in China.
I am a Vietnamese and lived in Vietnam until 18. After high school, I moved to Germany to do my bachelor’s degree and lived in Germany for four years before choosing Japan as the destination for that exchange semester. It made me feel great to land here as a ‘born and raised” Asian with a deep understanding of the Chinese culture, which has a heavy impact on the neighboring countries. However, some knowledge about European culture also allowed me to experience the cultural integration process when coming back to Asia.

During the meeting, we were divided into several groups of 9 or 10, and each group got a staff as a supervisor. There were me, two Singaporeans and a Philippine, together with some international peers from Europe and Africa in my group. We kept asking many questions about the accommodation, the commute to school, and- for the European – about how to survive the Chinese culture. The supervisor was very kind and tended to agree with everything we said. She said ‘yes’ to all yes-no questions and also to the innocent statements we made about the country and the Chinese culture based on what we had ‘researched” on the internet before the arrival. After the meetup, I heard 2 European guys chat next to me on the bus that they don’t understand the staff saying yes on all the questions, and most of the yes didn’t make sense for them.

What Asian think

In China, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Asian countries, people often answer quickly ‘yes’ whenever you ask a question. This happens even when we know they haven’t thought about the question long enough to formulate an answer. For people who always assume ‘yes’ means ‘I agree,’ it is much more confusing to receive the response ‘yes’ from an Asian but then have to be worried about what to do next. So, the first thing you want to understand here: Why do Asians always say yes?

In many Asian cultures, being asked about/to do something is considered an honor. Being asked means that they are trusted and considered the best person to assist. They are therefore happy to help and want to deepen the trust you placed in them by saying ‘yes’ or ‘yeah’ which could mean ‘yes, I am listening, keep talking’ or ”yes, I understand your concern,’ or ‘yes, you are right from your point of view, but…”- depending on the context.

Also, in the Asian concept’ face,’ there are certain actions or words that are disrespectful may cause somebody to ‘lose face’. One of them is the word ‘No’ or any action that might cause the person in front of you to understand that you are lost in the conversation (which makes you lose face), or their words are hard to understand (which makes them lose face). So just saying ‘yes’ means in this situation ‘keep talking” and we save our faces.

In Asia, children are taught not to interrupt a conversation, especially when an older person or a person they respect is talking. The best way to behave is to wait until the person finishes his talk and give you a signal that he is done, and it’s your turn then. To keep the conversation going on, they say ‘yes,’ which means that they are still on the topic and listen carefully to you.

The next reason why saying ‘yes’ is always better than ‘no’ is that they are afraid ‘no’ can cause the conversation or the negotiation to be over. It happens quite often in the business context that the Asian business partner keeps saying ‘yes’ at first glance on any request or suggestion. But if it could come to an agreement or not- let them figure it out later. Also, when they are asked something like ‘Do you have the authority to make a decision?’, they are likely to say ‘yes.’ Asians don’t want to disappoint the business partners by keeping them waiting to make them realize that they have been talking with a person who cannot decide independently.

Asians may bring the ‘Yes’ Mode with them when they go to study or work abroad. They slowly find the inconveniences and the misunderstandings it causes them in life and try to change it. But they somehow feel hard to say ‘no’ directly due to the negative meanings that their original cultures taught them. To understand an Asian business partner, an Asian colleague, or a friend from Asia, you should understand this ‘habit” to clarify your conversations.

How do they say no?

Asian communicate with a high-context style. Social context is expected to be implicit, contextual. It must look peaceful and harmonious and should look like it ends with an agreement, even when it doesn’t. Therefore, to know when an Asian conversation partner means ‘no,’ you can:

Read their face

Even when they don’t say ‘no,’ their facial impressions and vocal sings (like the hesitance to say ‘yes’ or scratching the head) can hint you that they are unsure what they will agree on.

Listen to their ideas till the end

They can say yes at the beginning, but in case they don’t really mean it, there will be a ‘but’ after that, which is followed by (lots of) arguments for a ‘no.’

If you find they are hard to do, then there is something simpler for you: Don’t corner Asian to say yes!

• Not asking direct question

If you ask a question where the answer can only be ‘yes” or ‘no,” you know what you get!. Ask them for general statements or possibilities. Instead of asking them whether something is good or not, ask them about how they feel. Instead of asking if they can do something for you, ask how to do it- and let them offer to assist you.

• Not showing how much you love something

They will be biased, and if they respect the relationship with you, getting it for you might be their new goal. They will find it hard to say ‘no’ on anything related to the thing you like.

My message

That one says something when he doesn’t mean it may lead to many misunderstandings and even troubles. But it is not anyone’s fault to do it or not to be able to realize it. It is culture; it’s great to know about and experience. What you should do is to take the chance to enjoy, learn about it. It’s your choice to change it if it causes you incontinences and also your choice to accept and love it.

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