Getting to “No” in Japan

It’s not a stereotype – we Canadians are a profusely polite bunch. Some of us more than others. And, in some instances, we’re too polite.

I have a terrible habit of apologizing before I even know what I’ve done wrong. If I bump in to a wall and think it’s a person, I’ve blurted out “I’m sorry” before even looking to see what I came in to contact with.

In conversation, if I know someone is not going to like what I’m going to tell them, I cushion the blow by putting the meat of the bad news in between two soft, fluffy, easy-to-digest-if-you’re-gluten-tolerant buns.

In my travels, I’ve carried Canadian politeness with me.  I feel it puts good karma out in to the universe.  In Tokyo, I hold doors open.  I let old ladies go ahead of me when getting off the bus (even though they look at me strangely as if to say ‘go, you’re holding up everyone else’).  I tend to bow graciously when thanking a clerk at a store, which leaves them confused as they bow again, and I bow again, and then we’ve ended up in a bow-off.  I hate saying “no,” and often have a pained expression on my face when doing so because I hate to disappoint.

Much has been written about how the Japanese don’t say “no” either.  But in my experience, to say the Japanese are averse to “no” would be incorrect.  They’re less afraid of the word (and its many possible variations) than us wishy-washy North Americans.  And once they’ve made a decision in the negative, there is a straight-forwardness and firmness to their message, even if they soften the blow a bit through body language or choice of words.

At movie theatre chain Toho Cinemas, there’s a commercial which underscores the emphasis of “no” in Japanese culture – with the announcer in the pre-film manners and etiquette commercial exclaiming with increasingly greater force through the ad, “NO talking! NOO kicking! NOOO cell phones!”  (It ends with a “Thank you.”)

There is even a special hand gesture to say “no” in Japan. A more muted way to do it is by crossing the two pointer fingers forming an “x,” while a much more pronounced way to do it would be to cross both arms mid-forearm forming the “x” (as seen in the header image). In some ways, this gesture eases the sting of that two letter word we all hate to hear, but it also forms somewhat of a physical barrier. The person giving the “no” is putting space between you and them – and that space is being created by their negative response.

I won’t forget on a previous visit I went to a store and was using my credit card to buy something. The clerk ran the card through the machine, then brought it back and handed the card to me (gently, with two hands, as is the proper way in Japan) and proceeded to cross her fingers in an ‘x,’ and told me, “sorry, no good – declined.” I knew the account was fine, and figured the problem was likely with the card’s well-worn mag stripe.

At home, I had relied on chip and pin with the card most of the time and had never thought to get it replaced.  So, I pointed to the chip and proceeded to ask, “secret number?” (That’s the Japanese term used a credit card’s PIN number.) She just shook her head, crossed her fingers again and with a sad expression she shook her head said, “no good.” As far as she was concerned, the authority (the credit card machine) said my piece of plastic wasn’t going to work. And that was that.  It was frustrating in the moment, but I understand why she did it – no is no. I ended up paying with cash.

At a clothing store, I learned the hard way that shoes are not allowed in the change rooms. As I stepped up to the curtained closet to try on a shirt, the dressing room attendant immediately looked panicked – her eyes wide and darting, her hands flailing wanting to make an ‘x.’  I knew something wasn’t right. I followed her eyes and looked down at my feet. My shoes! My shoes were the problem! I quickly slid them off and placed them outside the change room threshold. The relief on the woman’s face left me feeling bad for committing a foreigner error nearly as big as jamming your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice (word to the wise – it’s associated with death.) I apologized profusely in Japanese (su-mi-ma-sen was probably one of the first Japanese words I learned – go figure), she smiled, and I went ahead and tried on the clothes.

In North America, we are always trying to get to “yes” – so much so that we’ve neutered “no” of its usefulness, and in many ways leaving people feeling like it’s a bad thing. “No” has a use.  When there are rules to be followed, it lets us know when we’re in the right and in the wrong.  It has a way to keep things moving.  But as evidenced in real life and echoed on reality shows like “The Real Housewives of Some Godforsaken City,” we’ve come to feel like no is a slap in the face.  How daaaare you?  Don’t you know who I am?  Let me speak to your supervisor!  Right!  Now!

The thing about Japanese straight-forwardness with “no” is that while it can shock North American sensibilities the first few times you encounter it, you realize we would be a lot better off back home if we lived our lives this way. You always know where you stand, there’s never any ambiguity, and you can always be assured that there is a right way to do things.

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