17 Different ways to say ‘No’: Complex communication and non-binary thinking

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During the communication component of our intercultural workshops, we joke that Brazilians have 17 ways of saying ‘no’ without saying no. Unfortunately, the literal English translations will never provide all the rich contextual and cultural meaning of these words and phrases, but some examples include:

“Então”, “talvez,” “vamos ver,” “quem sabe?”, “veja bem”, “é uma, hein?”, “vou pensar”, “a gente se fala”, “é uma opção”, “vamos marcar”, “pode ser”, “vamos ver”, “depois a gente se fala”, “amanhã a gente conversa”, “se Deus quiser”, “você que sabe”, and our favorite, “vou dar uma passada mais tarde.”

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For the non-Portuguese speakers, all of these phrases contain intentionally ambiguous messages; versions of “let’s see” or “it could happen”, that when used in a Brazilian cultural context, communicate an unlikelihood while thoughtfully maintaining relational ties and keeping doors open. It’s so much nicer to hear, “Let’s go out for a coffee sometime” instead of a harsh “goodbye” or “thank you for your time.”

Perhaps most importantly, these phrases can be used to express a desire to connect, while simultaneously acknowledging a logistical impossibility. Every Brazilian knows that when they hear, “I’ll stop by later” that the person is not going to show up, but the speaker expresses multiple messages withing the phrase; their intent to be present, the importance of the person(s) who is already there, and they leave a tiny window open that if the circumstance or mood changes between the current moment and the “later,” they can still show up.  While complex communication styles work wonders for those who understand the cultural context, it leaves those who are unfamiliar with the unspoken meaning completed confused and often distrustful. In the business world, linear communicators may think, “If he can’t even setup a coffee date, how can I count on him to turn in an important project?”  In fact, Brazilian communication styles are so complicated for most foreigners that The Economist wrote an article about the subject. 

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In the intercultural communication field, communication styles are usually presented on a spectrum; linear/direct/simple on one side verses circular/indirect/complex on the other. These terms and spectrums are helpful tools for teaching communication basics and for providing quick, visual explanations for different cultural behaviors. For example, linear communicators tend to be more comfortable giving and receiving direct feedback while indirect communicators usually not only prioritize face-saving measures to maintain relationships and not embarrass anyone, but also understand direct communication as something very aggressive and unpolite. However, with a more advanced intercultural understanding, articulated by Milton Bennett decades ago, we come to understand that culture, communicated through language and non-verbal behaviors, operates directly on our perception of reality. In other words, people from different cultures inherently experience the world differently.  We all operate from our distinct cultural mindsets.

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In general, direct communicators tend to be more dualistic, binary thinkers. It comes from the western enlightenment idea of controlling things through rational comparisons of true and false, existent or non-existent. While indirect communicators usually see the world in more holistic and complex terms. It is an extremely valuable exercise for direct communicators to practice communicating indirectly and vice-a-versa, and we offer the practical tools to develop this skill in our workshops. However, it’s not enough; developing cultural intelligence is about understanding how language and culture shapes how we think and act, moving beyond binary spectrums and language.  It is acknowledging that monolingual communication will, to some extent, always limit creativity since many concepts and ideas cannot be translated. It is recognizing ethereal and energetic forms of communication as real and legitimate form of knowledge. It is deeply comprehending that accessing multiple cultural intelligences takes time, and takes living through several uncomfortable and unfamiliar experiences in which we are able to reflect and learn from in order to make meaning and continue learning. Instead of the old-time saying, “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” we encourage, “when in Rome, learn as much from the Romans as you can, and become a better person.” Of course, your definition of ‘better’ will be culturally relative.

By Adrienne Sweetwater & Mariana Barros

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