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.
“In 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!
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:
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.
All examples from Lifehacker, translated and explained by me.
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.
Owing to budgetary circumstances… Owing to circumstances surrounding the scheduling…
Nothing special here. Deflects responsiblity to ‘the circumstances’, but it does it in style. ^^
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)
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.
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)
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.
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?