Refusing people in Japanese

By Michael Gakuran | | Japan | 27 Comments |

I’m disinclined to acquiesce your request, dear Sir.” We all have times when we need to politely refuse requests. But how to turn someone down without upsetting the balance or damaging the trust in the relationship? Here are some useful expressions to help you turn someone down, Japanese style.

refusalIn Japanese, the expression to turn someone down politely is this: 体よく断る (ていをよくことわる)

But there exist so many ‘tacit understandings’ (暗黙の了解) in Japan, it’s not always easy to do this. Often is it expected of you to do certain things, like attend the company drinking party or do your bit of overtime. Don’t get me wrong, a level of self-sacrifice exists in pretty much all societies; one can’t always get one’s own way. But the pressure to conform in Japan is greater than many other countries (you may have heard of the old idiom 出る釘は打たれる – the nail that sticks up will be hammered down). More recently though, there seems to be a rising disatisfaction with the loss of individual freedom in Japan, so turning down requests is becoming something of a finely tuned and necessary art form. But enough background! Let’s get to the meat of this post and learn some awesome Japanese!

nothanks

Image from: the boy on the bike

According to Lifehacker, what is important when turning someone down is what you would like to expect from the relationship afterwards. They recommend splitting it into 3 categories:

#1 If you want to maintain a level of trust with the other person, give the real, honest reason for your refusal.

#2 If you feel like giving too much of a frank reason will make the other person angry, express yourself in a euphemistic manner.

#3 If it’s a person you’ll only meet once, be blunt with the refusal.

For #1, as it suggests, the best approach is just to be honest. Try using a telephone to refuse someone in a less-direct manner and to avoid stress. But the problems arise when you don’t have an adequate reason for the refusal. As Lifehacker puts it:

気を遣うのは、「断る理由に、あまり筋が通ってないとき」。

For those times, you’ll be wanting to use some 言い回し表現: roundabout expressions. *Edit* All of these expressions are very formal and only really suited to the business environment.

Roundabout Expressions


All examples from Lifehacker, translated and explained by me.

●いたしかねます、~かねます
例:「申し訳ありませんが対応いたしかねます」「~はお受けできかねます」
I’m extremely sorry, but I am unable to deal with your request

‘Kaneru’ is the grammatical expression meaning ‘difficult to do’, but rather than simply saying ‘dekinai’ and having a sort of ‘I can’t do that’ ring to it, kaneru retains an air of formality and ‘out of my hands’ kind of restriction.

●~の都合により (つごうにより)
例:「予算上の都合により…」「スケジュールの都合により…」
Owing to budgetary circumstances… Owing to circumstances surrounding the scheduling…

Nothing special here. Deflects responsiblity to ‘the circumstances’, but it does it in style. ^^

●ご期待に沿うことができません (ごきたいにそうことができません)
例:「せっかくご提案をいただきましたが、残念ながらご期待に沿うことができませんでした」
We thank you for you taking the time to submit a propsal, but unfortunately we are unable to fulfil your expectations

Key phrase here is ‘kitai ni sou’ – unable to fulfil expectations/produce the goods/live up to the name (etc)

●「お力添え」を文末に使うと、文が引き締まる (ちからぞえ)
例:「またの機会にお力添えをいただければと思います」
We would be delighted if we may be able to ask for your help on a future occasion

Here it is ‘chikarazoe’, which tightens the feel of the sentence and takes the formality up a notch. It means ‘help’ or ‘assistance’

Next up, #2, euphemisms.

kotowaru3

Euphemisms


●「自分の裁量では決められないこと」を断る理由にする (じぶんのさいりょうではきめられないこと)
例:「予算が合わない」「スケジュールが合わない」「マンパワーが足りない」など
The figures don’t add up. Our schedules don’t seem to match. There aren’t enough people for the job.

Essentially, here you try to deflect responsibility by appealing to external factors, like being under-budget, under-staffed or simply having timetabling issues (an all-too-common favourite excuse in Japan that lovers make as to why the can’t meet their partner)

●「コネクションの差」を断る理由にする (コネクションのさ)
例:「子会社・関係会社の案が通った」「いつもお願いするところに依頼することになった」など
The subsidary’s/affilated company’s proposal was passed. We ended up having to make the request to the company we always go with.

Blame the subsidaries. Another favourite in the office. I’ve read on other blogs of foreigners working in Japan that they have been shrugged off with the simple but devilishly effective ‘I’m sorry but it was an order from above’. Probably happens a lot in other countries too.

●「タイミングが遅かったこと」を理由にする (タイミングがおそかったこと)
例:「御社にもご提案いただきましたが、先にご提案いただいたところへ依頼する次第となりました」
We received your company’s proposal, but just before that had another request that we had to comply with.

Blame the timing. Same as the circumstances really. It’s that old Japanese saying 「仕方がない」 ‘it can’t be helped’. Key thing to note here is the use of 「となりました」, which implies that the company ‘unavoidably had to’ do something (whether that is the truth or not is a different matter). It’s the opposite of 「にしました」, which denotes a freely-made decision.

Well, that’s about it for now. As for #3, refusing bluntly is never going to be a good thing. I think the reason for the third category is just to distinguish those people you meet everyday from people you only meet once. It’s important to think about your relationship with the person after your encounter. That said, leaving someone with a bad taste in their mouth because you weren’t polite is not recommended.

And remember though, that no matter how well you use these expressions, far more weight is given to your own reputation, tone of voice and body language. If you genuinely look distressed and are usually a pleasant fellow to work with, I should imagine the people asking things of you should be more understanding. ^^

Alrighty then. Question time: Have you ever been in a pinch where you wanted to refuse but found it difficult? What did you say to get out of the situation?

Source:
Lifehacker

27 comments on “Refusing people in Japanese
  1. Billy says:

    I’ve been studying Japanese for years and I still have problems with the little things in situations when I should be polite. I’m fine in a casual atmosphere… but polite Japanese is a different language and I definitely should brush up a bit.

    Great post!

  2. Billy says:

    I’ve been studying Japanese for years and I still have problems with the little things in situations when I should be polite. I’m fine in a casual atmosphere… but polite Japanese is a different language and I definitely should brush up a bit.

    Great post!

  3. Jenni says:

    OK, so I don’t understand any of the Japanese :) However, the title reminded me of something very interesting I read recently. Obviously there is a vast difference between cultures of how to make requests politely, and how to turn someone down without being rude. Apparently there have been notable incidents of airline pilots from cultures where there are very subtle nuances of politeness (e.g. Japan, Korea) not being able to communicate effectively with people in air traffic control, because they are just *too* subtle. In particular, co-pilots from cultures such as these often feel unable to disagree with the pilot – they see them as their superior, and it would be very rude to assert oneself too much, even when the aeroplane’s safety is endangered! The book was called “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell if you are interested ^_^

  4. Jenni says:

    OK, so I don’t understand any of the Japanese :) However, the title reminded me of something very interesting I read recently. Obviously there is a vast difference between cultures of how to make requests politely, and how to turn someone down without being rude. Apparently there have been notable incidents of airline pilots from cultures where there are very subtle nuances of politeness (e.g. Japan, Korea) not being able to communicate effectively with people in air traffic control, because they are just *too* subtle. In particular, co-pilots from cultures such as these often feel unable to disagree with the pilot – they see them as their superior, and it would be very rude to assert oneself too much, even when the aeroplane’s safety is endangered! The book was called “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell if you are interested ^_^

  5. Hao says:

    Nice article Michael, and quite an important aspect of Japanese culture.

    I don’t regularly use my Japanese for anything work related, but I was working as an interpreter and assistant some days ago for a consultant (nothing fancy), and my job was to call a whole bunch of irresponsible companies who didn’t want to provide us with their information. As you can imagine I had quite a troublesome time trying to explain what was going on was すみませんでした’ing every two seconds.

    Also comes into my mind, an article about how Japanese say “Could you do it by tomorrow” and mean “Do it by tomorrow or I’ll have your neck cut” would be great too ^^

    • Mike says:

      Hey Hao! Irresponsible companies eh? Sounds tough!

      I think ‘Could you do it by tomorrow’ in polite Japanese would be:

      明日までにできますでしょうか。

      There’s probably an expression that’s even more polite than this though, but keigo isn’t my strong point.

      明日までにしないと、あなたはひどい目にあうぞ!

      That’s something more like the ‘have your neck cut’ nuance. Literally, ‘if you don’t do it by tomorrow, you’ll meet misfortune’. *Do not* use that to anybody in the office, unless they are an equal and have a more Western sense of humour…

  6. Hao says:

    Nice article Michael, and quite an important aspect of Japanese culture.

    I don’t regularly use my Japanese for anything work related, but I was working as an interpreter and assistant some days ago for a consultant (nothing fancy), and my job was to call a whole bunch of irresponsible companies who didn’t want to provide us with their information. As you can imagine I had quite a troublesome time trying to explain what was going on was すみませんでした’ing every two seconds.

    Also comes into my mind, an article about how Japanese say “Could you do it by tomorrow” and mean “Do it by tomorrow or I’ll have your neck cut” would be great too ^^

    • Mike says:

      Hey Hao! Irresponsible companies eh? Sounds tough!

      I think ‘Could you do it by tomorrow’ in polite Japanese would be:

      明日までにできますでしょうか。

      There’s probably an expression that’s even more polite than this though, but keigo isn’t my strong point.

      明日までにしないと、あなたはひどい目にあうぞ!

      That’s something more like the ‘have your neck cut’ nuance. Literally, ‘if you don’t do it by tomorrow, you’ll meet misfortune’. *Do not* use that to anybody in the office, unless they are an equal and have a more Western sense of humour…

  7. Deas says:

    What about a simple 「それはちょっと…」? That implies the refusal AND avoids giving a reason why. :-) Plus, it’s super common.

    • Bobby says:

      それはちょっと is definitely common, but it’s not in the same ballpark as these in terms of politeness.

      • Bobby says:

        To be clearer, that was in comparison to the example phrases. Some of it is simply the wording – それはちょっと is kinda casual, whereas 〜かねる or 都合により thrown in the right place can come off sounding very formal and polite.

        Another reason is exactly because それはちょっと doesn’t specify the reason. If the request was such that they’ll guess you’re refusing for selfish reasons, you haven’t done anything to prevent that. It’s better if you can point to something outside your control.

    • Mike says:

      Haha. I did realise shortly after posting that these express are ultra-polite and really only suited to business situations! ^^; Perfect if you need to answer phones in the office though.

      それはちょっと・・・ is a great example of a more casual expression to convey unwillingness! Wouldn’t be suitable for turning down your boss though ^^;

  8. Deas says:

    What about a simple 「それはちょっと…」? That implies the refusal AND avoids giving a reason why. :-) Plus, it’s super common.

    • Bobby says:

      それはちょっと is definitely common, but it’s not in the same ballpark as these in terms of politeness.

      • Bobby says:

        To be clearer, that was in comparison to the example phrases. Some of it is simply the wording – それはちょっと is kinda casual, whereas 〜かねる or 都合により thrown in the right place can come off sounding very formal and polite.

        Another reason is exactly because それはちょっと doesn’t specify the reason. If the request was such that they’ll guess you’re refusing for selfish reasons, you haven’t done anything to prevent that. It’s better if you can point to something outside your control.

    • Mike says:

      Haha. I did realise shortly after posting that these express are ultra-polite and really only suited to business situations! ^^; Perfect if you need to answer phones in the office though.

      それはちょっと・・・ is a great example of a more casual expression to convey unwillingness! Wouldn’t be suitable for turning down your boss though ^^;

  9. Rieko says:

    Yeah, Japanese people think that how they turn someone down is important when they want to keep the good relationship with someone. I think there are many phrases to turn down in Japan. Such phrases would be useful for my future though ^^;

  10. Rieko says:

    Yeah, Japanese people think that how they turn someone down is important when they want to keep the good relationship with someone. I think there are many phrases to turn down in Japan. Such phrases would be useful for my future though ^^;

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