So, we all know that there’s no particular word in Chinese that can be translated as just “no.” Watch this lesson if you don’t know what I’m talking about:
But did you know that there are all sorts of phrases that COULD mean “no” even if they mean something else when taken literally? Those phrases can be misleading if you come from a culture that values direct communication.
If you ask 10 Chinese people what, generally speaking, one of the biggest differences is between them and Americans, I bet at least half of them would mention something about Americans being much more “direct.”
To hear some Chinese people talk, you’d think every American basically has no filter, never beats around the bush, and always means exactly what he says and says exactly what he means. And that makes Chinese people feel uncomfortable.
On the other side of the coin, the “indirect” nature of Chinese interactions can drive an American crazy. They feel like they always have to guess what a Chinese person really means, and have to force people to give a clear “yes” or “no” answer to any questions.
I always felt like I was one American who could help to bridge that gap. I felt like I didn’t fit the “direct American” profile. Saying a direct “no” to someone made me feel uneasy.
So I, of all people, ought to be able to really understand where a Chinese person is coming from when they talk in a roundabout way.
Or so I thought.
After living in China for my first few years, I finally came to terms with the fact that compared to the average Chinese person, even I can in fact be downright blunt at times.
I am just as bad as the next insensitive American at being able to read between the lines that were put in place to save face. It may be that my way of being indirect is different from the Chinese way of being indirect.
I eventually figured out my main problem was that I simply expected people to mean exactly what they said. I took words at face value, and finally realized that it was causing me problems.
If I was ever going to be able to understand a “no” when it heard one, I needed to learn to decode a few key phrases.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
If you’re asking for help / a favor, you might hear…
没有 (méi yǒu) - "Don’t have"
Scenario: You walk into a store, and ask for something in particular. The shop clerk tells you, “méi yǒu.”
Even though you’ve bought it there before. Even though someone you know bought it there earlier that day. Even though you haven’t had a chance to really explain what it is that you’re looking for.
What it actually means: In some cases, “méi yǒu” might truly mean, “We don’t have it.” But in many cases it actually means, “I don’t want to / can’t help you.”
This response was really common back in the “iron rice bowl” days when nobody’s job depended on sales targets or customer service.
These days it’s less common, but you still hear “méi yǒu” from time to time in government service offices such as at the post office or the visa bureau, or if you happen to catch somebody in a bad mood.
想一想吧 (xiǎng yī xiǎng ba) - "Let me think about it"
Scenario: You ask a coworker if she will go to the boss with you to ask if everybody in your department can leave early on Friday. You tell her that the boss is more likely to agree if she asks too.
She tells you, “Xiǎng yī xiǎng ba.” You’re happy with that, and give her a few minutes to think it over.
What it actually means: “I don’t want to, but I don’t want to tell you that.”
She wants to make sure your relationship with her remains in good terms, so rather than just telling you “no” and risk you being upset with her, she tells you that she will “think about it.”
But be clear here: she has already made up her mind about it.
If you’re extending an invitation, you might hear…
改天吧 (gǎi tiān ba) - "Another day"
Scenario: You’re going to a live music bar with some friends, and asked a Chinese friend to join you.
He seemed really happy to receive your invitation, but when it’s time to meet, he says his uncle came to town, so he can’t join you. “Maybe another day.”
You ask him when his uncle is leaving so you can reschedule and he gives you a vague response.
What it actually means: “I don’t want to, but I needed to find a way to let you down easily.”
In this case, there’s probably no uncle, but a white lie is a good way to help you save face and to keep your friendship. The friend probably just doesn't think he’d enjoy going to a loud bar with a bunch of foreigners.
This doesn’t feel so foreign, does it? Americans are often pretty good at making up fake excuses followed by an insincere “another time” too.
下次吧 (xià cì ba) - "Next time"
Scenario: You’re heading out after work for dinner with some friends. You ask a coworker to join you, but she says she’s busy, so maybe next time. But the next time you ask her, she says the same thing.
What it actually means: “No thanks.” This one is pretty straightforward.
When someone says, “next time,” save yourself some embarrassment and don’t take it literally. Chances are, the answer next time will be the same.
If you’re asking for information, you might hear…
不太清楚 (bú tài qīng chu) - “It’s unclear to me"
Scenario: You ask for directions from someone on the street. Before you even get a chance to finish asking your question, the guy shakes his head and says, “I’m not sure.”
What it actually means: “I don’t want to tell you or I truly have no idea. Please don’t ask me again.”
If someone is quick to say, “I'm not sure,” it’s best to just leave it at that. Don’t try to offer more information that might help shed some light on what you’re asking.
“Bú tài qīng chu” is usually a clear sign that you’d better ask someone else.
过两天吧 (gùo liǎng tiān ba) - In two days
Scenario: You ask the shop assistant who said “méi yǒu” when the store might have more of the item you’re looking for in stock.
She replies “guò liǎng tiān ba,” so you make a note to try again in two days’ time.
What it actually means: “Maybe at time point in the future. I don’t know when.”
I made the mistake of taking this phrase literally. I showed back up at the shop two days later, and the woman told me again, “gùo liǎng tiān.” Then it became clear to me that “two days” doesn't really mean “two days” in this phrase.
Once I learned to identify a thinly veiled “no” in Chinese, I was able to save myself a lot of misunderstanding. But the biggest advantage to learning these phrases was being able to put them to use myself.
That granny who wants me to commit to coming over to her house every Saturday afternoon to teach her grandchild English? “Xiǎng yī xiǎng ba.”
The front desk staff who ask me to buy a membership at the hair salon? “Xià cì ba.”
That landlord who wants to know when it will be convenient for him to stop by and pick up some things (i.e. snoop around)? “Guò liǎng tiān ba.” I know what to say. They pick up on my gist. We all save face and everybody feels good.
I hope these are helpful for you, too. Have you had any issues with misinterpreting an indirect “no” in China. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section!