Refusals: Teaching Tips

For Learners of Chinese:

  • Learners of Chinese may feel that in response to requests Chinese speakers sometimes say "yes" when they really mean "no," or mean "no" without saying the word. It may be due to mišnzi (face) considerations. Mišnzi refers to the need of an individual to conform to social conventions and express his/her desire to be part of this community. It is essential for learners of Chinese to observe how Chinese say "yes" and how they follow it up.
  • Generally in Chinese, speakers are not supposed to accept an invitation or an offer right away but should normally refuse several times before accepting. Such refusals are termed as "ritual refusals" and almost obligatory in refusing invitations and offers. The invitee could use ritual refusals to assess the sincerity of the inviter, namely how firm the invitation was and if the invitation was a ritual one or a matter of face. As the inviting-refusing sequence goes on several times, the invitee should be able to figure out whether the invitation is sincere. However, whether or not the ritual refusal is performed depends on the nature of the relationship between the inviter and the person being invited.
  • Learners of Chinese may have difficulty making refusals in Chinese. They may find it impossible to refuse offers of food, cigarettes, tea, and so forth, since no one may take learners' "no" for an answer.
  • When Chinese speakers say "I have something planned," the person being refused should not be asked "What is it that you are going to do?" because the expression is conventionalized and means "Don't bother me." It is possible that the recipient of the invitation has nothing going on. It means "no" and there should be no further negotiations.
  • Stating principle and folk wisdom is a rarely used refusal strategy in Chinese refusals, although its absence in American English make this strategy seem more salient than it really is. In formal instruction, stating principles and folk wisdom should probably be taught for receptive purposes, but not necessarily for learners' productive use and not overemphasized.
  • For learners of Chinese who are recipients of invitations, an initial decline may still be expected. It is appropriate to say "tši mˆfan ni le". 'too much trouble for you.' The learner must not mention anything relating to her own circumstances in a ritual refusal. However, being perceived as a cultural outsider, the learner may not be expected to behave exactly like native speakers of Chinese, refusing as many as three times (a folk rule of refusing). Once or at most twice is probably more than enough for learners of Chinese.
  • When in the role of the person doing the inviting, learners of Chinese should not take their interlocutors' first refusal at a face value and stop further invitation/offer right away. The inviting/offering sequence should be repeated. Explicit instructions like "Make yourself at home" or "take whatever you like" will not be sufficient offers to Chinese speakers.

Above passages taken from Kasper & Zhang (1995).

For Japanese Learners of English:

  • Japanese excuses tend to be less specific compared with American excuses and this might transfer into the English of Japanese speakers. Whereas Americans prefer "air-tight" excuses being specific about their plans and naming places they need to go to, Japanese learners tend to give excuses that are too vague or weak to be considered sincere in English ("I have a previous engagement/This Saturday will be inconvenient/I have things to take care of at home").
  • Japanese learners tend to sound more formal in tone than Americans due to the frequent use of performative verbs (I must refuse/I must excuse myself) and of philosophical statements (I make it a rule to be temperate in eating). When a cleaning woman offers to pay for a broken vase, an American might say, "Don't worry. I know it was an accident," letting the woman off the hook using everyday vocabulary. However, a Japanese speaker might make a philosophical statement using more formal vocabulary or offer proverbs such as: Things break anyway or To err is human. This tendency probably comes from the way native Japanese speakers talk in Japanese, and this tendency might need to be addressed in teaching English refusals.

Above passages taken from (Beebe et al, 1990)

For American Learners of Japanese:

  • Native speakers of Japanese tend to use direct refusals less frequently than native speakers of American English in their native languages. Japanese often do not complete their sentences, avoiding expressing direct refusal. For instance, by saying only "Nichiyoubiwa chotto... 'Sunday,' they tend to avoid finishing the sentence with "...dekimasen 'I can't do it'." They also use such incomplete refusal expressions more often with people of higher status. American learners of Japanese might not use such expressions as often and might instead overuse direct refusal strategies. This language behavior may be perceived as too direct and therefore rude to natives in a higher rank than the refuser. It may be beneficial for learners of Japanese to study how incomplete refusal expressions are used, especially with high-status interlocutors. (Shimura, 1995)
  • Japanese speakers commonly suggest an alternative in addition to a refusal, while American learners of Japanese are less likely to do so. American learners might be seen as insincere or taciturn by native speakers of Japanese. (Ikoma & Shimura, 1993) and (Beebe et al, 1990)
  • In refusing food a friend offers at the dinner table, American learners of Japanese might tend to give no reasons but overuse expressions like kekkoudesu. This may be due to the equivalent expression in English ('No, thank you') that is appropriate in this situation. Since kekkoudesu is a rather formal expression, it is not suitable for an interaction with a friend and therefore, the learner might be viewed as distant or abrupt by natives. (Ikoma & Shimura, 1993)

For Nonnative English-Speaking Graduate Students:

  • In refusing a suggested course selection made by an advisor in an academic advising session, native speaking graduate students typically minimize the potential disruption of the face-threatening refusal by employing various strategies, whereas nonnatives tend to employ fewer appropriate strategies.
  • Both native and nonnative speakers of English are most likely to give an explanation for the refusal. Giving an alternative is the second most common strategy among natives, whereas nonnatives tend to use a wider range of avoidance strategies than natives such as:
    • Hedges (Well, um...)
    • Postponement (Can I decide it next week? I want to think a little bit more.)
    • Question asking for the repetition of information (What was that last course?)
    • Request for additional information (Do you have any idea what the syllabus is like?)
    • Opting out (not refusing or performing any other speech act)
  • Nonnative speakers might prefer questioning strategies, perhaps in the hope of avoiding the appearance of the rejection. However, they seem to be successful when they draw from the more restricted set of strategies used by natives (e.g., giving explanations and alternatives with downgraders and context-appropriate content). Some probably unacceptable explanations are:
    • Explanations citing the student's friends as examples or authorities (You know, I'd like to ask my other friends who have finished here to see if they have taken...)
    • Lack of knowledge about a course or a requirement (But I don't know what the course is.)
    • Explanations evaluating a course as too difficult or too easy (It's looks difficult.)
  • Native English speaking graduate students generally make suggestions more than twice as frequently as they reject their advisors' advice. On the other hand, nonnative graduate students make almost equal numbers of suggestions and rejections. When nonnative students do not make suggestions, advisors do so instead, potentially resulting in an increase in student rejections. The advisor may in turn interpret such a high frequency of rejections by the students as being rude.

Above passages from Bardovi-Harlig & Hartford (1991).



Bardovi-Harlig, K. & Hartford, B. (1991). Saying "no" in English: Native and nonnative rejections. In L. Bouton and Y. Kachru (Eds.), Pragmatics and Language Learning, Vol. 2 (pp. 41-57). Urbana, IL: University of Illionois.

Beebe, L. M., Takahashi, T, & Uliss-Weltz, R. (1990). Pragmatic transfer in ESL refusals. In R. Scarcella, E. Andersen, S. D. Krashen (Eds.), On the Development of Communicative Competence in a Second Language (pp. 55-73). New York: Newbury House.

Ikoma, T., & Shimura, A. (1993). Eigo kara nihongoeno pragmatic transfer: "Kotowari" toiu hatsuwa kouinitsuite (Pragmatic transfer from English to Japanese: The speech act of refusals). Nihongokyouiku (Journal of Japanese Language Teaching), 79, 41-52.

Kasper, G. & Zhang, Y. (1995). It’s good to be a bit Chinese: Foreign students’ experience of Chinese pragmatics. In G. Kasper (Ed.), Pragmatics of Chinese as a native and target language (pp. 1-22). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Shimura, A. (1995). "Kotowari" toiu hatsuwa kouiniokeru taiguu hyougentoshiteno syouryakuno hindo, kinou, kouzouni kansuru chuukanngengo goyouron kenkyu ‘Frequency, function, and structure of omissions as politeness expressions in the speech act of refusal.’ Keiougijyuku Daigaku Hiyoshi Kiyou (Keio University at Hiyoshi, Language, Culture, Communication, 15, 41-62.


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