Saying “no” is often a very hard thing to do – especially for Chinese people when dealing with acquaintances. This causes them to sometimes say “yes,” or other words, when they actually mean “no.” For this reason, you may find it is difficult to refuse food or drink in China, as it may seem that no one is taking your “no” for a real refusal. Don’t worry, we know this sounds confusing. This cultural difference is the cause of several misunderstandings, hence the article you’re reading today!
There are two types of refusals in Chinese culture. One is a “real refusal,” while the other is “ritual refusal.” For a given invitation, sometimes people will offer an invitation merely as a ritual to show politeness (called a “ritual invitation.”). This type of invitation often occurs at the end of the interactions, and functions as a proper way to say goodbye and keep a relationship open. For example,
A:有空来我们家玩啊(Yǒu kòng lái wǒmen jiā wán a.) Come and visit us when available.
B：好，到时打电话吧。(Hǎo, dào shí dǎ diànhuà ba.) Ok, I`ll call you then.
In this ritual invitation, A (the inviter) didn’t give many details about the invitation. Normally, B (the invitee) tends to accept the invitation without asking for further information.
In some case, for instance, when the invitee is not sure whether the invitation is real or ritual, the invitee will refuse the invitation to ascertain whether or not the inviter really had the intention of inviting them along.
Refusal of Invitations:
改天吧(gǎi tiān ba) Maybe another day，
下次吧(xià cì ba) Maybe next time，
以后/回头再说(yǐhòu /huítóu zài shuō) Talk about it later.
Sometimes, it is difficult to guess whether an invitation is real or merely a ritual one. In this case, a ritual refusal can be used to judge the real intention of the inviter. If the inviter doesn’t insist on inviting a second time, the first invitation can be interpreted as a ritual one, and declining is an appropriate way to respond. However, if the response of the inviter indicates that his invitation was serious, accepting the invitation is the appropriate way to respond.
(Scenario: A and B are old school friends, one day they ran into each other on the street. A invited B have dinner together.)
A:我们一起去吃饭吧，我请客。(Wǒmen yìqǐ qù chīfàn ba, wǒ qǐngkè.) Let’s dine out together, I’ll take care of the bill.
B:还是我来吧。(Hái shì wǒ lái ba.) I’ll pay for it.
A：跟老同学还客气啊。(Gēn lǎo tóngxué hái kèqì a.) There’s no need for so much courtesy to your old classmate!)
B：那好吧，下次我请。 (Nà hǎo ba, xiàcì wǒ qǐng.) Ok, I’ll treat you next time.
Refusal of offers:
不用了(búyòng le) Not necessary.
太麻烦你了(tài máfán nǐ le) It bothers you too much.
别忙了(biémáng le) Please do not bother.
Chinese people tend to decline gifts multiple times before finally accepting them. This is a ritualistic way to show modesty, and to avoid indications of personal greed. Usually, formulaic expressions of politeness will be used to refuse gifts ritually, such as “你太客气了。(Nǐ tài kèqì le.) You are being too kind.
/不好意思。(Bù hǎo yìsi.) Sorry to bother you.” These expressions can be considered as sign of ritual refusals. Sometimes, questioning the giver of the gifts is used in this type of refusal, such as 干嘛带东西来?(Gàn má dài dōngxi lái?) Why do you bring gifts?/干嘛买这么多东西呢?(Gàn má mǎi zhème duō dōngxi ne?) Why do you buy so many things?
A：这是送给你的。(Zhè shì song gěi nǐ de.) This is for you.
B：干嘛带东西来啊?(Gàn má dài dōngxi lái?) Why do you bring gifts?)
A：这是我的一点心意，请收下吧。(Zhè shì wǒ de yìdiǎn xīnyì, qǐng shōuxià ba.) This is a little token, please take it.
B：你太客气了。(Nǐ tài kèqì le.) You are too kind.
Like gifts, Chinese people tend to decline favors multiple times. In Chinese culture, this behavior is a polite way to show modesty, because it indicates the willingness to not put many troubles on others. Usually, direct refusal, e.g. ”不用了(bú yòng le.) not necessary. ” “太麻烦你了(tài máfán nǐ le.) it bothers you too much. ” is a common way to ritually refuse favors.
A:我开车送你回去吧。(Wǒ kāichē song nǐ huíqù ba.) Let me drive you back.
B:不用了，太麻烦了。(Bú yòng le, tài máfán le.) It is not necessary, it’ll bother you too much.
A:没什么，别客气。(Méi shénme , bié kèqi.) It’s no big deal, don’t mention it.
B: 那好吧，谢谢。 (Nà hǎo ba. Xièxie.) Alright then, thank you.
This ritual refusal before final acceptance also often happens when people offer food or drink, especially when it is offered by unfamiliar people. That’s why when Chinese people offer you food or drink, and encourage you to “eat more,” they might end up giving you more and more food, even in spite of you saying “No, I’m full!” They interpret your refusal as ritual way to show politeness. To avoid eating more than you planned, I suggest you try “我现在不想吃。”(Wǒ xiànzài bù xiǎng chī.) / “谢谢，待会吧。”(Xièxie, dāi huìr ba.)
Refusal of unsolicited suggestions:
我考虑考虑(Wǒ kǎolǜ kǎolǜ.)
我想想吧(Wǒ xiǎngxiǎng ba.)
-I will think about it
Unsolicited commercial suggestions are often used by salespeople or advertisements when suggesting a purchase. The social distance between the salesperson and the listener plays an important role in the refusals of commercial suggestions. When refusing commercial suggestions by strangers, a direct refusal is acceptable like “不要，谢谢。(Búyào, xièxie. No, thanks)”. When dealing with acquaintances, though, excuses and/or postponements such as “我考虑考虑。(Wǒ kǎolǜ kǎolǜ.)/我想想吧。(Wǒ xiǎngxiǎng ba.)” are often used.
Refusal of requests：
我不太清楚。(Wǒ bú tài qīngchǔ.) “I am not really sure.”
If someone requests information or advice from someone who is not willing to give it, the person might employ a verbal avoidance strategy, such as switching the topic, postponement, or dodging the question, such as “我不太清楚。(Wǒ bú tài qīngchǔ.) I am not really sure.”
The Chinese concept of “face” and general characteristics of Chinese communication play a big part in how the Chinese choose to say no. The Chinese try to protect/respect the “face” of friends or coworkers by hiding the truth and replacing it with something less embarrassing or negative. These hidden negations also exist in many other languages and countries, though they’re not always as clear as they are in Chinese. Furthermore, times are changing, even in China – Chinese people are now not always indirect when saying “no,” especially amongst the younger generation.
Hopefully now you can understand the differences a bit better, and have an easier time adapting to Chinese indirect refusal!