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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’.

When working with the Chinese it's best to avoid saying '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.

It can therefore take some getting used to.

In this article, 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.


Maintaining your sense of status and being shown respect is 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.



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

Chinese businesswomen in a cafe

If you work with the Chinese, then food is very much part of the process of doing business.

Learn more here about essential Chinese dining etiquette

Photo by Danny Kang on Unsplash

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 to 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.

Take a Course in Chinese Business Culture!

If want to learn more about working effectively with the Chinese, 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 video, but you can also see a sample below.

Main image by U.S. Department of Agriculture (CC BY 2.0)

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