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How to Deal with 'No' in Chinese Communication Culture


Do you work with the Chinese?

A common challenge many foreigners come across is how to handle the word ‘no’.

For those from direct communication cultures, such as the USA and Germany, this can be especially tough as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are pretty much part of everyday life.

In this blog we’ll quickly explore the phenomenon and provide some simple tips on how to say ‘no’ without saying “no”!




Why are the Chinese uncomfortable with ‘no’?

When working with the Chinese, a guaranteed way to upset people is to give them a blunt “no” to a question or request.

This is for lots of cultural reasons all mixed up together.

For one, it causes a loss of face. Mianzi (‘face’) is really important in Chinese culture.

Maintaining your sense of status and being shown respect are all part and parcel of this too. Saying ‘no’ is not the Chinese way of doing things – it lacks any sort of consciousness of social dynamics.

Another cultural reason for this is that of guanxi. Personal relationships are the glue of commercial relationships, so saying you can’t or won’t do something for someone is very damaging.

Once a relationship is broken, it can be very difficult to fix.

How to say ‘no’ when working with the Chinese

When working or doing business with the Chinese remember their communication style is indirect.

A common charge the Chinese have against Westerners is their inability to follow suit.

The Chinese do say ‘no’ but simply do it using other means (such as body language) or by using other means and ways of expressing their opinion.

Here are some common tactics the Chinese use to avoid saying ‘no’ that you can also employ.

  • Avoid a straight ‘no’ at all costs. Instead try to use polite excuses that bide you space and time. “I will have to check and get back to you.” “It is under consideration at the moment”.
  • If you disagree with something, don’t verbalise it! Rather you should offer alternative suggestions and ideas to indirectly show your true feelings.
  • If you are stuck for words, then use your breath! This is common in China where people may draw in air through their teeth so illustrate something is going to be very difficult or impossible.
  • At times, you may even have to tell a white lie! Yes sometimes, for the sake of harmony, people will see a lie as more preferable in order to avoid conflict or to preserve relationships.

Learn More About Chinese Communication

If you work with the Chinese and want to learn more, then check out our online course.

It’s packed with information and tips about the people, culture and their approach to work and business.

Here's a little preview but you can also see a sample by visiting the course page above.


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