Thursday, May 6, 2010

Customs: The Art of "No"

Moving to Japan and wanting to be prepared, I read as many books on Japanese culture as I could find. Some advice ended up false or useless but one thing mentioned in all the books held true: the lack of a good, solid "no" in response to questions.

The Japanese language thrives on vagueness at times, so the indirect approach works well with it. Rather than anger or embarrass a person by flat out saying no, you get around it by saying things like "Chotto..." trailing off, which literally means "(It's a) little... (difficult)." In practice "chotto" is "No, nope, nuh-uh, no chance." If you suck in a little breath between closed teeth before saying it, you elevate the no further.

Upon hearing the "chotto" and wind sucking, your average Japanese will understand it as no and move the conversation along to something else.

If you don't recognize the cues, however, you can have bizarre yet entertaining exchanges like the time I spent five minutes trying to get out of a restaurant hostess if the restaurant took credit cards. ;)

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