Yes Yes No No – 3 Things to Know about Japanese/Indian ‘Yes’

When you use English to communicate with the Japanese and Indians (and many other non-English speakers,) there are certain things that you need to remember. Do you know what they are? A seemingly simple yes-no question like this can be very tricky. Here are 3 things that you need to keep in mind for a better communication:

1. Yes, I Heard You

The Japanese word for yes, or ‘hai,’ does not necessarily mean an agreement. It works rather as an acknowledgement, confirming that he heard what you said. As many Japanese translate ‘hai’ to English yes without realizing this subtle but distinct difference, English speakers would become confused when his Japanese coworker didn’t seem to be in a full agreement on the topic he already answered with a yes. The Japanese say yes quite often but don’t get fooled by that.

The conversation goes like this:

You: Taro-san, I have a great proposal.
Taro-san: Yes yes.
You: Do you like my idea? We should implement this immediately.
Taro-san: Yes yes.
You: OK, great. Thank you!

If you try to implement that proposal, then you may be in trouble, as your proposal would not have been bought or approved yet. You should ask more directly, such as ‘do you approve this?’ or ‘Can I do this and that?’

2. Yes, I don’t

You should avoid using a negative question when you speak with a Japanese (and also with an Indian as they seem to have the same logic.) They have a problem answering a question starting like ‘aren’t you …?’ or ‘isn’t it …?’ They tend to say yes when they are in agreement with what’s being asked, even though that’s negative.

You: Taro-san, you didn’t eat my cupcake, do you?
Taro-san: Yes (= I didn’t eat your cupcake)

You: Taro-san, do you mind if I sit here?
Taro-san: Yes (= I don’t mind)

One of my French coworkers has developed a brilliant solution for this problem. Whenever he was asked with a question, either positive or negative, he would answer with a sentence beginning with ‘yes yes no no.’ Then he would finish his sentence by either agreeing or disagreeing with what’s being asked. Although it’s confusing, we always understand if he is agreeing or not.

Likewise, when you talk with your Japanese or Indian coworker, have them complete their answer with a full sentence and don’t let them finish their response only with a yes or a no (or a yes-yes-no-no.)

3. No No’s

This last point is a cultural issue. not a language one. Both the Japanese and Indians have hesitation to say no. They don’t want to let you down by saying no. By answering yes to a question or a request, they try to please you at least for that occasion. If you take their yes at the face value, you’ll get frustrated when you find your request is not fulfilled ever. They have a natural born sensor to sense a difference between a real yes and an I-don’t-want-to-hurt-you-by-say-no yes. If you are in doubt, you should always double confirm and even encourage your counterpart to say no.

Today’s Lesson:

Your yes may be different from his yes. Always confirm if that yes is an yes or a no or an yes-yes-no-no.

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