How to Say “No” to Easterners

Lesson 3: Topic 5 of 14

All of this ideally results in a shift of understanding for westerners. How does one say no when the word “no” is not helpful? Worse, when saying “no” could end a relationship. Here are some options:

  • Apologize profusely. Overdo the “It’s not you, it’s me” angle, but not stated exactly like that. This type of blame-taking is helpful for something minor, such as an unwanted lunch meetup or your inability due to your schedule. If you have a family birthday party scheduled and can’t accept a weekend invitation, you will still need to apologize. It’s still your fault, in terms of politeness. 

Here are some examples:

“Please forgive my shortsightedness…”

“I am inconsiderate for causing this problem, but…”

“It must be my memory, but it seems I’ve overbooked that day.”

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  • Use vagueness. This seems odd and unacceptable to westerners, but it is used consistently in eastern cultures. If an employee suggests an idea that needs to be rejected: 

Consider these statements:

“Ah, that is a helpful idea, however…” 

“There may be a time in the future that we could do something like that…” 

“There may be some issues…” 

“Some other group might be able to use that to good effect. Let me make a note of that,”

are all ways to deflect.

  • Move responsibility. Often, this means saying you will check with a boss or spouse about a concept or date. Even when there is a clear conflict, it is too direct to say so. 

Try something like these for deflection: 

“I will certainly speak to my boss (or spouse) about this.” (And do speak to your boss or spouse.) 


“Our department assistant will certainly know the calendar dates better than I do.” 


“The leadership team will certainly take that under consideration.”

  • Next, remember to always Praise to the sky. When giving a negative to a coworker or subordinate, give high praise where you can before cautiously critiquing. 

Try saying things like: 

“We all know that you work hard and are a critical part of this group. I am so thankful for all your contributions. You were an important contributor to the last project, and we couldn’t have done it without you. There is a slight issue…” 

Proceed carefully and indirectly.