East-West cultural differences exist that may make it confusing as to when a reply from those in Korea, China, and Japan is a “no” or “yes.”
In the West (a low context environment, in which more focus is placed on the communication itself than the communication context), a premium is placed on clarity, which in turn, means brevity and direct communication. But in the East (a high context environment, in which more focus is placed on the context of the communication than the communication itself), communication can be more indirect, which may be understood by others from the same region, but may be complex and difficult to understand for those from the West.
Below are the top 5 communication terms that mean “no” without the term itself actually being spoken or written (due to the high contextual environment for those in the East). And conversely, these same terms can be used to say “no” by Western individuals to their Eastern counterparts in a very localized manner, which may signal that the Western counterpart is localized, polite, and well-informed (all virtuous traits in Asia):
1. “Maybe later” – from the West’s eyes, if interpreted literally (as one would do in a low context environment in the West), the term “Maybe later” could mean that a “yes” might be right around the corner, after some internal discussion. But do not be confused, in an Eastern context, generally “maybe later” means “no.” So why not just say “no?” The main reason is to be polite (in a society where appearing impolite is a sign of being uncultured and/or uneducated; two strongly negative labels in Asia relative to in the West)
2. “I/We will think about it” – again, from a Western frame of mind taking this term literally, a statement such as this may give hope to the Western individual/entity that more consideration is needed by the Asian team member/team. But generally this is not the case.
3. “I/We don’t know” – The Western framework based on Cartesian logic and logical deduction places a premium on getting a definitive “yes” or “no.” This is not so different in Asia. At the same time, a gray zone between yes and no tends to be more tolerated in Asia than in the West. But even more, a statement such as “We don’t know” in response to a direct query that would normally require a definitive yes or no is best interpreted as a “no.” Again, this is for face-saving measure.
4. Silence – Those in the West generally feel extremely uncomfortable with silence, especially in a group or business setting. This is not so much the case in Asia. Silence, on the contrary, can actually be considered a virtue in Asia. Having said this, silence or a non-reply can also be interpreted to mean a “no.” The Western counterpart should also look at the facial expression when confronted by such silence in response to a query that would normally require a definitive response.
5. “That would be impossible” (or a direct “no”) – of the list, the use of the term “impossible” is the most direct indication by those in Asia of a “no.” Why don’t those in Asia use the term “not possible” since “impossible” seems so ironically definitive? The short answer is that “impossible” is based on a literal translation of Chinese characters (a negative vowel to use a rough Western equivalent). Also, those in Asia do not always share the same notion that “nothing is impossible” given the right level of knowledge, aptitude, and creativity.
The above top 5 list generally apply to a primarily domestic Asian audience (not those who have spent substantial time with Westerners or time overseas; if this is the case, then the above rules would be less applicable). The above list also, by virtue of its brevity, explains the concepts in broad brushstrokes and terms, which in many instances will have exceptions.