The California No and the East Asian No

13 Sep 2013

I recently came across the term “California no” on Urban Dictionary. It is defined as:

> The way rejection tends to be handled by Californians, who are sunny in disposition and less brusque than East Coast residents. Instead of bluntly saying “no,” Californians say no by avoiding the question, forgetting to respond to emails, and generally postponing the issue. The best way to give a California no is to do nothing at all, as opposed to saying it outright.

> This is especially popular in the entertainment industry. For example, Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal is quoted as saying: “To me, postponing a Hollywood lunch meeting is the new passing. They figure they’ll postpone you until you go away. This way, they are not saying no. If that happens more than twice — obviously emergencies come up — you’ve got to get the hint.”

> A: So I emailed that agent a week ago and still no response. What is going on?

> B: He’s giving you the California no.

This strikes me as very similar to the “Chinese no” (or even “Japanese no”): indirect, requiring the rejectee to “get the hint.” Anyone who’s ever studied “how the Chinese do business” will have read at least a full chapter on this topic.

Here’s a typical example taken from Chinese Business Etiquette: the Practical Pocket Guide:

> THE “NO” WORD

> Misunderstanding over the use of “no” is one of the most frequent causes of frustration in business negotiations. It is common knowledge that Chinese people do not like to say no.

> In accordance with Confucian ideals of humility and service, Chinese do not like to disappoint someone or seem ungenerous or unhelpful. The Chinese consider it rude to say no to someone even if that is the only answer possible. This cultural norm finds its most frustrating aspect in asking Chinese for directions. Should the person questioned not know what you are talking about, he or she will nevertheless give you false directions rather than appear unhelpful. Despite the wasted hours of wandering you may incur, remember they were simply being polite.

> Likewise, in business the Chinese will not usually come out and say no to a proposal directly. Instead they will give a vague response such as “perhaps,” “I’m not sure,” “I’ll think about it,” or “We’ll see”–all of which usually mean “no.”

What do you think, Californians? Are you culturally “more Asian” in this regard?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Let me think about it …

  2. Love the blog.

    There’s lots of literature on “high context” vs. “low context” cultures. I identify strongly as a Californian, yet I hadn’t noticed this aspect of California culture. I wonder if it’s particular to Hollywood?

    I’ve written a bit about this at:

    http://www.jasonpatent.com/2009/07/09/high-context-low-context/

    Cheers!

    Jason

  3. I wouldn’t trust anything on Urban Dictionary. Half that stuff is added from a single high school’s slang and has no relevance to the rest of the school district, much less the rest of the world.

  4. Could it be due at least in part to the large number of Californians with Asian ancestry?

    About the giving directions part of the excerpt above though, it seems that the giving of false directions (which I have experienced on a few occasions, much to my chagrin) may be more about the respondent not wishing to lose face (if he feels he should know where is is) or not wanting the questioner to lose face (if it seems they may have mispronounced the place they were trying to locate) rather than simply not wishing to appear unhelpful. Which, could also be related to loss of face for the respondent.

  5. I live in Los Angeles and it’s interesting that other people are picking up on this type of behavior. I do find it a irritating.

    I think, in Los Angeles at least, that a great deal of value is placed on being liked and fitting in, and having to maintain a sense of brightness and positivity comes a long with that. As a result, people do not want to bring any sort of opposition to the table or express any discontent amongst one another. So instead, they remain, seemingly, neutral.

    However, most people will give an honest “maybe”, “I don’t know”, or “I’ll think about it”, but these undecided statements never make a transition into a clear “yes” or “no”. The topic at hand may not be of great interest to them or they may not be so convinced about a certain idea, so when they postpone their answers, they procrastinate and never give themselves the time to really think about it and followup.
    Sometimes it’s best to take such answers as “I don’t care”, because that’s what it really feels like.

  6. Two things,…
    One, having lived in cali for years, didnt/haven’t pick up on this. However perhaps that is just because I wasn’t cool enough to be in the entertainment business.
    Two, having lived in China for years, didn’t/haven’t pick up on this. Be it in daily business or life in general, no word seems to be said faster, with more conviction, or with greater frequency to the questions/proposals/suggestions/comments/thoughts I offer than the beloved 没有/不。

    Personal conclusion, I find locals have zero aversion to saying “no”.
    And please before you argue with me, come to China, get a cab and ask to blast the a/c.

    • It depends on what you’re asking and of whom, but this is certainly also true. Don’t have it, can’t do it, won’t help you, am also not going to think about possible other solutions: I, too, have come across that often enough in China. But it’s also true that in some situations people will just say whatever to avoid having to say no.

  7. You’ve really got to take these things with a grain of salt. E.g. “Chinese people don’t like to say no.” Perhaps in some situations, but who doesn’t hear “不行”, “不可以” and “不为什么” on a fairly regular basis?

    As always, 因人而异.

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