Hearing No

The Japanese word for yes is hai. The Japanese word for no is — well you don’t really use the word for no in Japanese. The Japanese still say no. They’re just not crass enough to use the word no itself. 

It’s like that in English, to a lesser extent. People will say no in various ways, usually without using the word no. An important part of nonverbal communication is understanding what people are really saying, especially when they’re being politely indirect. Specifically, it is our responsibility to hear it when people tell us no politely. 

Saying no is an important part of boundary setting. In fact, most boundary setting is learning how to say no to people. To set proper boundaries, we must tell people when they’ve crossed our boundaries, and even when they’re getting close.  

However, using the word no is often impolite. So people will use other phrases, like, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure about that”. Or people will give reasons for why the answer is no and leave it to the listener to make the connection. They are still saying no, just without the actual word no.

I used to not pick up on when people told me no, especially if they didn’t use the word no. I’d think we were discussing the merits of different alternatives. We’d bring up reasons for and reasons against, to help us make a group decision. 

The people I was talking to saw it differently. They saw it as they were saying no by bringing up objections, and I was shooting down all those objections. In the end people would get tired of fighting me and just agree with whatever I was saying. 

I’d leave the conversation thinking we had made a collaborative decision. 


Conversation has always been difficult for me. I’ve studied up on how to have better conversations, but I missed the most essential point: What is the purpose of the conversation? Once you learn the purpose of a conversation, everything gets easier.

My main goal in conversation had been to not appear socially awkward. So when I studied conversation it was with an eye to appearing to have social grace. I learned about listening more than I talked, about paraphrasing back what they said, and about starting a conversation with small talk. But only to appear normal.

I never thought about the purpose of the conversation. If you think about why you’re having the conversation, the rest falls into place. You’re always trying to accomplish something with your conversation. It’s never only conversation for conversation’s sake.

For example, If your goal is to make a new friend, then your purpose is to “trade information to find common interests.”1 Conversations with existing friends usually are to deepen your relationship. For that, you should get to know each other better.

I used to focus only on keeping the conversation going. So while the other person was talking I would be thinking about the next thing to say. I viewed the sharing of stories to be the aim, so I didn’t really think about what stories meant. I often would leave a conversation without remembering what had been said.

In high school my friends joked that I was like a cassette player. I would pop in a tape, and tell a story in the exact same way I’d told it last time. Same words, same gestures, same tone. I wouldn’t remember who I’d told it to, and I wouldn’t customise it for my audience. My friends started numbering the tapes, so they could say, for example, “oh, this is tape 16” when I started a repeated story. I was forgetting that I needed a purpose to share the story.

1The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults by Elizabeth Laugeson