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Yes, or No?


Do you remember the title of a book published a few years ago that received a lot of notoriety ... The Japan That Cannot Say 'No'? I didn't read it, but I understand that it was a kind of analysis of a certain aspect of Japanese culture ... the unwillingness of most people to say 'no' or to refuse requests.

I suppose such behaviour comes from the strong feeling here that social 'harmony' must be preserved, and that interpersonal conflict should be avoided wherever possible. It's a bit difficult for foreigners to get used to this at first, but once they catch on to this 'custom', some of them are able to turn it to their own advantage. Indeed the various negotiations constantly under way between governments and trade groups are heavily influenced by consideration of this habit.

Of course, this business of not saying 'no' is only a general characteristic of Japanese people. One will occasionally meet individuals who do not fit the pattern, people who are willing to 'stand pat' and clearly utter the forbidden word. And so it is the other way around. Just as Japanese people are convinced that all foreigners are 'hard-nosed' people who will get what they want, and do what they want, even at the expense of others, so they are surprised to meet people who don't fit this expectation.

And there are plenty who don't. In fact, there are even foreigners who find it so difficult to say 'no', that they will tolerate considerable hardships, financial or otherwise, to avoid it. My own father is a good example. Back when I was a teenager, he ran a music shop for a while, a small scale business that offered music lessons to local children and supplied instruments and sheet music. In some ways his venture was very successful, as his personality was ideally suited to the interaction with the community that is so essential to such a local enterprise. But he ultimately had to close down. He simply wasn't a 'business man' ... he couldn't say 'no' to people. It was easy and natural for him to be open and friendly with his customers and suppliers, but this very attribute made it impossible for him to protect his own interests. He was incapable of 'bargaining' with his suppliers, and just as incapable of resisting such behaviour from his customers. He literally could not say 'no', even when absolutely necessary. He was far too much of a 'softie' to survive long in the world of business. (I was too young at the time to now remember it, but he was also involved in another business venture years before this, opening and running a neighbourhood restaurant together with a close friend. I can well imagine some of the conversations that must have taken place there. "Say Roy, I seem to be a bit short of cash today. Can I pay you later for this meal ...?" "Well ... um ... er ... oh ... OK." The restaurant also, although it must have been a hilarious place to visit, did not survive ...)

Having grown up under this sort of easy-going influence, I was thus forced to undergo a somewhat difficult 're-education' when I started working for a larger music company in my early twenties. I learned that the 'anything goes' system was not a suitable model for a company, not if it expected to survive. When the prices asked by suppliers were too high, we had to say 'no'. When the payments offered by customers were too low, we had to say 'no'. When faced with business options that were detrimental to the survival of the business, we had to say 'no'. During the decade or so that I worked there (off and on), I watched the behaviour of the company owner, and learned how to be more firm. I never did become as 'tough' as he was, but the experience did go a long way towards correcting my previous 'training'.

So I became a man who could say 'no' when necessary, perhaps not in a very loud voice, but anyway audible. Wouldn't you know it though, I've still got a bit of a problem with this ... not with 'no' anymore, but with something else ... I seem to find it quite difficult to say 'yes'!

Don't misunderstand. If the 'yes' answer is one that would benefit somebody else, I can say it easily enough. I can give permission. It is when the beneficiary of the offer in question is to be me, that I find that the 'y' word just doesn't want to come out. For this 'legacy', rather than my father, I think I might 'blame' my mother's influence. (I hope my parents realize that I'm laughing as I am writing this!)

As my memories of childhood are turning out to be notoriously unreliable, I can't pretend to remember details of this, but it seems to me that my brother, my sister and I were brought up with a philosophy that had as one of its major tenets: "Try not to be trouble for other people ..."

In its simplest form, this just expresses common politeness: standing aside to let someone else go first; taking the smaller piece of cake, leaving the larger for someone else; etc. etc. But I seem to have perhaps misunderstood the 'rules', and applied them more severely than intended. If somebody offered me something, I took it as given that they were just making the offer out of politeness, and so I would say "No thank you" in order not to cause them trouble or inconvenience. My own desire, whether I really wanted to say 'yes' or not, was to be suppressed.

It occurs to me now, that perhaps I was over-reacting to that directive that all mothers give to their children: "Don't accept things from strangers!"... Did my mother emphasize this too much? Was I too stupid to understand that this didn't apply to social situations? Whatever the reason, this behaviour pattern became very strongly ingrained. I found it nearly impossible to say "Yes please."

Japanese readers are probably nodding their heads at this point. This should sound very familiar to them, as such behaviour is built into the basic rules of this culture. Something is offered ... it must be refused. The offer is repeated ... it is refused again ... offered again ... etc. etc. Back and forth it goes, until the recipient feels that he has shown enough reticence and can finally accept. Many Japanese who have travelled across to America have played this 'game' with disastrous consequences. "It's very hot today, Mr. Suzuki. Would you like something cool to drink?" "Oh, no thank you. I'm quite alright ..." End of conversation. Suzuki-san then quietly dies of thirst waiting for the offer to be repeated. The 'ground rules' of the two cultures are completely different.

My problem as a kid then, was that for some reason I was playing by Japanese rules in a western world. I couldn't say 'no', and I couldn't say 'yes'! No wonder I was such a shy and withdrawn kid. I never knew what to say! Did I somehow get some Japanese genes mixed in? Of course I don't think so, but perhaps these little personality quirks have made it easier for me to adjust to this society during the years that I have been living here.

I noticed too, just the other day, that my own kids seem to be sharing some of this behaviour. The three of us were visiting a friend, who at one point offered them something. They both turned to me expectantly, asking with their eyes, "Is it OK?" Of course, I immediately told them, "If you would like one, simply say 'Yes please'." So, just like me, they too seem to be a bit puzzled. Just where is that line between being polite ... and being inconsiderate? Why does it sometimes seem to be so difficult to find?