When I lived in Japan, I found it quite easy to say “no.” The conversations went something like this:
Japanese Coworker: “Can you come out drinking with us tonight?”
That little hesitation accompanied by the Japanese “Chotto…” (“Actually, I…”) or perhaps “Kyo wa chotto youji ga…” (“Today I’ve got something else…”) was almost always enough: No need to add elaborate excuses or to make up reasons for why I couldn’t make it to the party.
Saying “No” in America is much more difficult. We feel compelled to give a justifiable reason for declining even the most basic invites and requests:
“I’d love to come to your party, but I promised my wife I would take her to the City tonight.”
“Oh you need help packing for your move? Oh, shoot, I have guests coming to the house on Sunday.”
“Sorry I can’t come to your son’s birthday party, but I have to do some work this weekend. Deadlines!”
Basically, Americans want to know “why.”
There are strong cultural reasons for this. It has to do with what sociologists call high-context/low-context culture. Japan is understood to be a “high-context culture.” There is a rich amount of unspoken understanding shared between speaker and listener. In contrast, the US is a “low-context culture.” We have to explain (almost) everything.
This difference is not limited to the US and Japan. You can view a list of high-/low-context cultures here.
Understanding that these differences exist is important for effective cross-cultural communication. People from high-context cultures often feel that Americans talk too much. On the flip side, Americans may find people from high-context cultures to be a bit mysterious. We may understand their questions, but we can’t understand the motivation behind the question. This can be frustrating.
Fortunately, there is a solution. When you are in a conversation with someone from a culture at the opposite end of the high-/low-spectrum, consider the following:
If you are an American, try to get to the point. Shorten the explanation and stay focused on the key message.
If you are from a high-context culture, make sure you explain the background to your comment or request.