UMass Amherst Professor of Communication Examines the Difficult Art of Just Saying No

December 23, 1997


AMHERST, Mass. - Donal Carbaugh wasn''t surprised when the much-touted "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign was reported to be only marginally effective. Carbaugh, a communication professor at the University of Massachusetts, says that saying ‘no'' is more difficult than it sounds.

"The whole premise that you can say what''s on your mind simply and directly, without any consideration for anyone else, or for the situation you''re in, is simply naive," says Carbaugh. "We know it''s more complicated than that." That difficulty is underscored when people from various cultures try to communicate. Cross-cultural ways of saying "no" was the topic of a panel for which Carbaugh served as a respondent, at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association in San Diego. He worked with University of Oklahoma professor Ling Chen and her graduate students.

Carbaugh says that Americans generally want to ask their questions directly, and to receive straightforward answers: "We tend to say, ‘Just tell me, I can take it.'' But that would be very inappropriate in other cultures. You need to factor in both the social relationship and ideology of the culture. What''s the overriding value: is it on individualism and speaking one''s mind, or on the community good?"

Even some cultures within the United States frown on making requests directly: the Blackfeet Native Americans in Montana, as well as many people living in the Appalachians, at times lean toward an indirect style.

"There are cultural scenes, in Finland for example, in which you would never make a request unless you knew ahead of time what the answer was going to be," Carbaugh says. "If it''s not overt and not contentious, and if it respects everyone''s role, then you might say it."

Responding to a request would be handled with equal discretion, according to Carbaugh, particularly when the answer is "no." The person making the refusal might talk at length about the issues, the options, and everyone''s roles. "It would either be very indirect, or not addressed at all. The attention is given to respectfulness and harmony; the relationship is in the foreground."

Another marked difference: in many other cultures, it is fine to refuse strangers'' requests outright, whereas family members and close friends would be told "no" discreetly. In American culture, people feel that a friendly, close relationship allows them to be very direct.

How adeptly people deal with cultural differences can have serious consequences, particularly as business becomes globalized. Americans,who value forthrightness, may want to sign a deal quickly, whereas their Asian counterparts prefer to let a relationship develop before even mentioning business.

Clashing cultures can be problematic not just in the boardroom or the courtroom, but also in the classroom, says Carbaugh. He recalls making a request regarding event scheduling while teaching in Finland, and feeling he hadn''t received a response. Later, he discovered that what he thought was the lack of an answer "was actually a careful, tactfully-put no."