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September 02, 2009

How Do You Say "No?"

Blog cartoon 9-9-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If I were getting transferred to another country for work (and I could bring my cat, Miss Minnie), I would be excited. Of course, also, I would hope no unpleasant viruses were running rampant there. Beyond that, I would be careful to understand and be able to clearly pronounce all the ways to say "no" in the country's native language.

I've signed myself up for many and varied tasks I grew to regret volunteering myself for, but at least I could say "no" if I wanted to. In an age when people notoriously over-commit themselves, the most important language lesson you could give an employee departing for a work assignment in another country is how to back out and (when necessary) squirm out of professional commitments they won't be able to deliver on.

It's funny and liberating to focus on the profound beauty of "no," but it's not as easy as you think. In addition to the usual emotional discomfort of saying "no," and the mastery of the words and expressions that mean "no," your transferred employees have to be able to differentiate between the "nos" that will get them into trouble and the "nos" that will set them free. What makes this especially challenging for me is I'm not sure I have that art mastered in my own language and culture let alone that of another country. 

Let's say you're in a foreign country you've just relocated to for work, and your new boss tries to set you up on a date with one of his children. What do you do?  Aside from the usual awkwardness of that situation, you've seen his picture, and know this is most definitely not a good idea. In the U.S., I doubt this situation would arrive at most companies. Thanks to sexual harassment laws, a manager could get into big trouble for pressuring you to save one of his children via marriage. But in a more traditional country, who knows, maybe it's considered not such an unusual or unreasonable request.  How do you know in your new home if it's OK to say "no?" 

I suppose the best thing to do is find a native mentor who works in the same office to beg for help (and an alternate person to go out on the date). So, it's important that as you teach your employee all the ways to say what they need to say to make you money, you set them up with a local, on-site "buddy" to help them wade through thorny social/cultural issues. These social/cultural issues, of course, also are essential to master because "no" judgment also needs to be used in business dealings. What if a sales prospect had made the same familial dating request?  It's funny until you have a business deal on the line, right?  In addition to "no," come up with some culturally-appropriate excuses to use when extricating from touchy situations. In the U.S., for instance, it's OK (depending on how liberal your workmates are) to say you can't join co-workers for dinner because you've already promised to go clubbing with friends.  Your after-work time is your own, and, for the most part, professional colleagues respect prearranged plans for a night on the town. In another culture, would you have to lie and say you're visiting a sick aunt?

Of course mannerisms and synonyms also come into play. There's that famous problem about some cultures using the right to left head shake to mean "yes" and the nodding head gesture to mean "no," but worse than that, are cultures in which similar sounding words can mean the opposite of what you intend. Take care to point these out to young relocatees. It would be awful to find that you had signed yourself up for corporate vampire night when you thought you had gracefully bowed out of that one.

If you're to assume a managerial position overseas, it's equally important to be clear on "no."  How well does the worker understand, for instance, what it's OK and not OK to ask employees working under her to do?  In the U.S., it's generally alright to ask workers to stay an extra hour or two if you're on deadline for an important project, but what about in the relocated manager's new office?  Family life has gone by the wayside in America compared to more traditional countries, or at least that's what I've heard, so are the relocated manger's native subordinates going to think she's the local culture's interpretation of a demon for asking them to miss the dinner hour?  You also have to understand what others in the office will resent you for wanting to say "no" to, but not being able to because you're the boss.

Some of understanding what to agree to; what to decline; and what to refrain from asking others comes down to manners that your employees may never have mastered in any language. They just got lucky and happen to live in the U.S., where it seems people are more forgiving of boorish manners than they are in other countries. I don't know, maybe that's not true, but it seems that way.

Before relocating a worker, take the opportunity to help them brush up on their etiquette while you teach them the tongue they'll need to converse in. One thing I'm curious about (and just as troubled by as I am about the potential nightmare of not being able to say "no") is learning how to inoffensively ask in as many languages as possible if my business table-mates could please chew with their mouths closed.

What are your top tips for preparing workers for relocation from a language and culture perspective?  What do they have to know to make money and not embarrass themselves?


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