Case Study 2: The art of saying no without saying no

How does a non-Japanese business person know that a Japanese person is declining something, if that person never actually says, “No”?  The “indirectness” for which the Japanese are known can cause some stress and confusion for non-Japanese business people.

In this blog post, I would like to raise a case of how to say “No” in Japanese language.

First, I would like to introduce a YouTube clip of Pakkun, Patrick Harlan, a TV personality, when he gave an interview at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. He speaks about the difference in communication style between Americans and the Japanese. For those of you who want to capture the essence of it, forward it to 22:14 and watch through 27:25.

Pakkun raises a few statements that Japanese people tend to use in a business setting as examples. Here, I’ve included a literal translation of them.:

Pakkun: “I’ve brought a new project plan. What do you think?”

Japanese: “Let me take a look offline.”

“Let me consult with my boss.”

“I will consider it in a forward-looking manner.”

“Wow, this looks awesome!”

“Tshhhhh…” (25:30)

According to Mr. Harlan, all of the above mean “No” in Japanese.

As he points out, there are two main factors at work here: Japanese is a high-context language (meaning that things can be understood without being explicitly said,  and Japanese young people are actually taught to use these types of expressions instead of saying, “No.”

As for the first point, Japanese is a high-context language and our sentences don’t have to be grammatically complete in order to make sense. This is especially the case for verbal communication.

A translated-example of conversation at a restaurant goes like this:

Server: What would you like to order?

Customer: Me, eel.

This means the customer would like to order eel; it doesn’t mean he/she is an eel. The server would understand that, based on the context of the conversation.

This sample sentence may seem obvious and straightforward, but this kind of omission can be observed not only in the grammatical structure but in the communication itself.

In Japan, we don’t see this so much as “omitting” something, but as being indirect and thus polite in expressing our opinions and positions.

My take: the examples the American comedian raised are a bit extreme, but I do agree with him in general. In Japan, we have a saying that we say “one” and expect “ten” to be understood.

There was a time when I really struggled with how to translate or interpret for an American audience, when a Japanese person says “it’s difficult” in Japanese,  because that person probably means “it’s impossible” or “no, we can’t” in reality.

I tend to feel that although it depends on the situation, I cannot translate or interpret what is not said. So, if I am sure that a Japanese person is saying “it’s extremely difficult” but really means “it’s impossible,” I would most likely express this in English as “it’s extreeeeemely difficult” with some emphasis.

Most of my interpreting experience is in Japan, and I have seen my English-speaking clients “get the message” when I’ve used this type of emphasis.

Sometimes, after the meeting, my clients will ask me about how the meeting went, and at that point, outside the context of the formal meeting, I will tell them my honest impression: for example that their Japanese counterpart is saying, “This is not going to happen.”.

But if the situation is the reverse: Japanese business people working in an English-speaking country, then we would need to adjust our communication style to be more direct and accept that an English-speaker is more likely to say, “That won’t work,” rather than “That would be a challenge.”

All in all, translating an entire culture and how far we interpreters can go or should is a part of the challenge (in a good way!) of the job, and there’s no one right way to resolve this dilemma.