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How To Say No: The Truth About Assertive Communication


Have you ever talked to someone from a different culture and thought 'Oh, that's rude!' or, quite the opposite, 'That sounds fake, do they really mean to say yes or no?' These cultural clashes stem from the different communication styles that different cultures tend to adopt, and it can lead to misunderstandings and lack of trust.

In some parts of the world, assertive communication might come across as rude, while in others it is a very standard way of expressing oneself. In this podcast, we talk about how different cultures express their opinion, and how you can be polite when you want to say no to your international teams. Ready to learn some assertive communication skills? Keep on reading!

What does assertive mean?

Assertiveness is the degree to which you stand up for your opinion and express your thoughts and feelings in a direct and honest way. Assertive people tend to get their point across clearly but respecting others.

Assertive communication is a very powerful skill in business - and in life - that shows confidence. Among many other scenarios, it can help you when you negotiate, when you are managing projects, and when you want to say no or disagree.

The truth is - assertive communication is not only about learning to say 'no', but more about speaking up and being confident about your ideas (while staying polite and diplomatic!).

What are high and low assertive countries?

It refers to the assertive communication style or assertive behavior that each country or culture tends to adopt. It is important to remember that when we talk about 'how different cultures communicate', we talk in general terms. It goes without saying that we all have our unique and individual communication styles and backgrounds. However, we can generally classify different cultures on a spectrum where find high assertiveness cultures, where it is more common to communicate directly, and low assertiveness cultures, where people tend to communicate more indirectly. 

  • Low assertiveness cultures (Peru, Japan, New Zealand) communicate more indirectly and appreciate sophisticated, nuanced, and layered messages. They might say things like “You might want to consider X.”
  • High assertiveness cultures (Austria, Germany, Israel) communicate very directly and unambiguously, people from these cultures appreciate precise, simple and clear messages. They might say things like "You're wrong."

Assertiveness across cultures - Talaera

How do you disagree when you work in a multicultural environment?

Here you have a template of how to disagree politely when you work with a multicultural team.

Step 1: Choose one of the following styles

  1. A. Show that you understand the other person’s opinion (I see what you’re saying but I think…)
  2. B. Apologize before introducing your disagreement (I’m sorry but I have to disagree with you on…)
  3. C. Pretend to be in the middle or unsure about your position (I'm not sure I share that view...)

Step 2: Always offer an alternative solution

  1. Offer an alternative solution (My suggestion would be to…)


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Talaera Talks - Transcript Episode 9

Welcome to Talaera Talks, the business English communication podcast for non-native professionals. My name is Paola and I am co-hosting this show with Simon. In this podcast, we're going to be covering communication advice and tips to help express yourself with confidence in English in professional settings. So we hope you enjoy the show! 

We're ready. We're in the zone. We got this!

We're ready. We're in the zone. We got this!

We got this. All right.

All right. So welcome back to our ninth episode of Talaera Talks. How are you doing today, Paola?

I'm great. Simon, how are you?

I'm doing well, doing well, excited that we're still on the air. We're still going strong. So we've got a bunch of new listeners, which is exciting and from all over the world. So yeah, it's very exciting.

It is very exciting. We were checking the stats, and we have people listening from Hanoi, Israel, South America, lots in Europe...

Yeah, and you know, we're, yeah, we're happy to have everyone listening. And, you know, again, what would really help us out is if you subscribe, or give us a review, and that will help us, obviously, to share it a bit more and get more listeners, which, you know, we talked about all these listeners all over the world, which is awesome. And I think today, our topic is going to really dive into that a bit more. So what are we talking about today?

We are talking about how to say no. Are you good at saying no, Simon?

I'm maybe the worst person in the world, I'd say. I don't know what that where that comes from. It might be my Southern American roots of communication, where I just, it's like a physical reaction that I can't say no, just blankly I have to... I'm working on it though. How about you? Are you good at saying no?

Uh, maybe? Yes, I think so. I guess my Spanish roots help. A little bit. So anyway, that's what we're talking about today, how different cultures say no, how they disagree. And we will talk about the importance of how different people express (themselves) when they don't like something or when they don't agree with something. And at the end, we have very specific questions that we want to answer. And they are: How do you disagree when you work in a multicultural environment? And what are some useful phrases to say no, or to disagree politely? And then a question that we get super often, or at least I do, is do you adapt to the culture, or do you keep your identity?

Oh, that's a good one.

And the last one is also pretty interesting. How do you know if the other person is being rude or it's just a cultural thing?

Yeah, that's a really good one as well.

So we'll keep those for the end. But let's start a little bit with what we mean when we talk about how different cultures say, no, it comes down to how people communicate and the different styles, and some cultures are more direct. And some cultures are more indirect. And this means how you disagree how you say no to a request, but also how you give orders or express demands, we will only focus on the disagree and how to say no, but we've had a lot of, you know, a lot of experience working with all different cultures, and then you can see the differences when they don't like something. And if you're talking to a German person, they might say you're wrong, very lovingly. And it's, it's fine. They don't mean to be rude. It's just they do not agree with what you're saying. But then in America, or in the US, if they want to tell you to do something, they might do it in a more indirect way. Like, you might want to consider x doesn't mean you might want to consider it, it just means do it.

Yeah, and this is exactly, you know, like you just said, which I think this gets down to exactly what we're talking about when you say, Oh, yeah, a German person might say this more bluntly, you know, to a German, that's not blunt. Right? That's just how you disagree, right? Where, for me being an American, that's like, Oh, that's harsh, you know, like, like, wow, and, and so there is a lot in terms of your background where you've grown up. And of course, when we say different cultures disagree, you know, there's such a spectrum that we're talking about, and it's not like, you know, if you're from x, then you only communicate in this way, right? There's completely it's a broad spectrum. But, you know, in general, when we talk about cross-cultural communication, you know, it's good at least to have an idea of Where the spectrum is and where different cultures lie on the spectrum. But, I mean, this is important, right? Because you know how you are understood or misunderstood in different cultures, we deal with this all the time with our clients with our students, you know, and there are values in different cultures around honesty and politeness. And this can get very difficult if you're in a multicultural setting, right? So, whereas in some Asian cultures where group harmony is very important and very valued, this type of harmony and how you disagree in that setting, is maybe seen completely different than, for example, right, we were talking about Germans where it's on this clear cut, honesty is valued in this style, right? So there are these differences. And I think it's the big thing, the first thing that we can all start with is having awareness for this, which is why we're giving examples first, because I think awareness goes a long way. I mean, for me, you know, I've worked in a few different countries. And one of the ones that really I learned a lot with this was when I was living in Vietnam, and like we talked about with group harmony, and I worked in a team where a part of the team that I was working with was all Vietnamese, and the way that you would disagree in that group, as opposed to the, you know, American Western group is totally different. Right? That and then, you know, even for me, whereas I'm an American, but then, maybe the Vietnamese would see me as super direct. My Danish girlfriend sees me as very indirect. And, you know, we have an expression called sugarcoating where I can't just say, No, no, I don't I just Well, you know, maybe this or maybe that, where she just tells me straight up, you know, hey, this, this is horrible. You didn't do the dishes? What are you doing? You know, and I'm like, well, maybe you want to do the dishes made? Right? So I don't know, if you've had similar experiences like that, Paola.

I have it every day with my students. Actually, I use a lot of TED Talks. And I try them to be, you know, inspirational and motivational and interesting. And in general, they are, they are pretty interesting. But of course, it's hard to keep it up. And then when I give one that is not that interesting to my Asian students, they are super polite, which I totally appreciate. And they're like, you know, you've had better ones. And this was nice, but I'm not sure. And then I have some Israeli students that I love. They're some of my favorite. And they might tell me, Listen, I didn't like this one, which I also totally appreciate. But I like the beginning.

A little bit. Right? Yeah. And it's that little, you know, I think part of the awareness thing that we talked about is, is having this awareness makes that so maybe you don't get a little bit of that Ouch, feeling right? When, you know, okay, this might be a cultural thing. And I think many times it is, but, you know, to make, kind of give an idea about these clear differences. I mean, we typically group them as more highly assertive cultures or more low assertive, kind of more indirect cultures, right? So So can you give us maybe some examples of some? Yeah, some very direct cultures.

Yeah, so highly assertive, just to make sure that we all understand what it means it's the kind of culture that communicates very directly. There's no double meanings. They just appreciate that precise, simple, clear message. And we see that in Austria, Germany, Israel, Russia, as well. And then we also have the opposite side of the spectrum with the low assertive cultures, they communicate more indirectly, they appreciate more nuanced messages. And a lot of South American cultures are like that, and also Asian cultures. So while a Peruvian, this is a real example, you know, when they want to say, "I would like you to make a coffee", they might not say, "Can you please make me a coffee?" They might say something like, "Oh, your coffees are so great"... that you say that to an Austrian person, they would just say, "Oh, thank you" and just move on. And I see this very often in Spain, actually, when I moved here, I didn't, I didn't fully get those nuances. And when people say, "Oh, you do this very well," it just means I would like you to do it.

And this is I think a really important point that you bring up here is because if you're coming from a more Direct culture, right in terms of communication, you may find and this is kind of going back to the honesty versus politeness you may find, or you may think your first thought maybe, okay, they're, they're being dishonest or they're lying or, you know, they're not, you know, being Yeah, very forthcoming in their communication, maybe they're hiding something or something like that. Right. And that can be the cause for a lot of miscommunicated problems. I mean, and then on the other side, right, if you're coming from, you know, a more indirect communicative culture, and then you're, you know, being thrown into a German team, where they just come up until you know, that that work isn't good. It's like, wow, this guy hates me, you know, yen's hates me, but maybe, maybe he doesn't hate me. Maybe that's just the communication. And I think that's a really important point.

Absolutely. And on the flip side, if you are one of those, one of those people where you appreciate direct culture, it happens to me a lot with us. I said, with my students in Israel, that they might show me an email, and they, you know, they read Oh, that sounds great. I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it though. They're like, okay, but can they make it or not? It was not clear. So it's the other side of the spectrum. One is you don't want to be rude. But then you also don't you don't want to be ambiguous. So how do you find the right balance? million dollar question?

Yeah, and that's, it's just a thing where, no matter, I really think no matter how much time you've spent in different cultures, and traveling, and how well versed you are in cross-cultural communication, or whatever, we all, at least I can speak for myself, I definitely catch myself, you know, like, some days I'll just be sitting, or, you know, doing the dishes or something like that. And then I'll think back to a conversation I had three months ago and think, oh, okay, maybe that person meant this instead of this? No. So this is, yeah, but I don't think by any means you can ever be clearly 100% about everything. But that's why we continue to practice and have that awareness.

And I actually have a question for you. I'm super, super curious to hear what you think, where would you put the UK and the US in that spectrum we've been talking about?

So I think this is interesting when we talk about, okay, it's the same language, you know, they should be around in the same place. But I would say that the US is probably more direct in the UK. I mean, if we look at the scales, that like the culture, study scales, and all of these types of things, then that's where we would find them. And it makes sense. I think, when you go there, I mean, you have some good examples of communication differences between the US and the UK. Right?

Um, we will we had, we were looking at this list of how different cultures say, I disagree. And, and that was, that was pretty funny. So a very typical way for a British person to say I disagree is well, I agree up to a point. Or the classic, let's agree to disagree.

Right. Right. So they're saying in the phrase, I agree, you know, but, but this is the thing is, that's where the politeness comes into is they're saying, Yes, I agree up to a point, but you know, this, right. Whereas in the US is, even though we are still much, you know, pretty indirect, and of course, we talk about this is in relation to other countries, we would say something like, Okay, well, you know, I don't really think x right, or, you know, oh, no, no, I don't really agree, you know, so so there is a difference there. Even though it is both English-speaking countries, there is a difference. But okay, so we've kind of set the stage for this. We've talked a lot about this, let's get down to some tips on how we're disagreeing.

So let's start with the first question. How do you disagree when you work in a multicultural environment, of course, if your team is all from the same country, then you can feel totally happy to just be yourself and, and, you know, flow. But when you are working with people from different cultures, you have to be aware of all the things we've been we've been talking about, and we broke it down a bit into different steps, actually two steps where you can disagree politely at work. And the two steps are the first one you have to choose between three different styles, which could be sure that you understand the other person's opinion or apologize before introducing your agreement. Okay, I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. super common. Pretend to be in the middle or unsure about your position. So even if you totally think, Oh my god, I disagree. This is not this is not right. This is not right. You can just pretend you're not sure. I'm not sure about that. So choose one of those three, show that you understand the other person's opinion, apologize before introducing your disagreement, or pretend to be in the middle, but then always offer a solution. You know, my suggestion would be to do this. That's always the part that adds politeness the professionalism. So yes, you disagree. But you also want to offer an alternative solution.

Yeah, yeah. And, and I like that part that you're talking about where showing that you understand the other person's opinion is very important. That initial kind of, Okay, I see this, you know, but I, you know, but right. And that's what we talked about some phrases that we can use with this, right, where we do this, I think a good point. And of course, this depends, of course, so much on where you are, and what is the context, but a good I think, universal way to do this. And that's one thing that we talk about, is there's kind of a general rule of, yeah, you know, I understand you. And this is my point, right? So so we can do this in a couple ways. We can, for example, we can say, Okay, I see what you're saying, but I think, right or, Yeah, true. That's a fair point. But I have to disagree. Because, right. And then we can even depend on the culture, and if it's appropriate is an apology of saying something like, Hmm, okay, I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. Because, right. And this, you know, chorus fits into where it would be on this politeness versus honesty. Right. Okay. And that's going to maybe be an easier transition for the more indirect cultures if you're apologizing, before disagreeing. And so, you know, again, you could also give in some alternative solutions, like even that saying, well, an alternate solution might be this, or my suggestion would to be to X, Y, and Z. Right. So there are many different phrases. And we'll obviously add them in the links. And you'll see that in a lot of our courses, where it depends on the situation, but you can do it in a kind of clear way. And a very, very important question, right? Do we adapt to the culture? Or do you keep your own identity? And this is, I mean, we could spend an hour talking about this, but I mean, what's your, from your experience? Paola, what do you do?

So this is, I think it's such an interesting question. And I've got it quite a lot of times. The last one was when I was teaching a group session, and one of my street where we're talking about speaking up, and how do you make your point, and the different styles and communication across cultures? And then this student is a very high-level professional? And he said, but do you adapt? Do I have to adapt to their culture? Or do you stay the way I am? And I think there's always it depends a lot on power dynamics. So if you're in a higher position, you are more free to do whatever you want. But if you do want to make sure that everyone is in the same boat, and that everyone is, no one gets offended, I think it's nice to find some middle ground and approach the other culture, you don't have to lose your identity completely. But I do think it's good to approach and adapt a little bit. I wonder what you think?

Yeah. So with the power dynamics, it's interesting, because I think, especially today, if you are if you're a manager saying you're taking on a posting in a different country, and that that country is a different culture, I think it's probably going to be easier for you, as a manager to get people on board and get them on your team. If you try to adapt a little bit. And by adapt, I don't mean, try to copy their style, because that's the worst thing you can do. If you try to go and just Oh, yeah, I'm going to a direct cut culture. So I just need to be very direct with everything because then it's you're walking in a, you know, around landmines, when you can make a serious mistake in terms of offending someone and being too direct, right. So I think it's about number one, awareness, being aware. And then number two, not being afraid of asking someone or practicing when you're in a meeting, hey, this is how I usually you know, do this, this, how I communicate this and this is kind of my style and communicating and just kind of expressing that first. May kind of save you a lot of trouble down the line.

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I like that the acknowledging the differences And that, you know, just that part of acknowledging, I think it's such a great step as well.

Yeah, yeah. So then when you're in these situations, instead of that person, right, jumping to Wow, my new bosses? Yeah, he's really rude. And I'm yeah, I'm just gonna fight him his whole time here instead of that, that person may think, Okay, this may go into what he was saying about, you know, he's from, you know, whatever, Denmark, and he's very direct. So I just need to, you know, so that's, that's one way one strategy to get around that. And then our last question here in terms of how do you know if the other person is just being rude, or if it's a cultural thing?

Great question!

So, yeah, this one I think, maybe you can attach to this kind of goes into a little bit with the previous one of what, what can you do? And I think number one is you can do your homework, and again, practice this awareness. What do you think about that?

Absolutely. Be aware of how people communicate. In certain situations, we said that each individual is unique, and we all have our personal styles, but knowing where a person comes from will help us see, okay, this makes sense.

Yeah. And as well, you know, again, just keeping open communication, if you're not sure. You can always ask for more information, ask for clarification by hey, can, I didn't really understand what you meant in that meeting previously? Can you maybe expand a little bit more, and maybe take that person besides like, Can you expand a little bit more on that? And then, you know, instead of walking away from that meeting, feeling like, Okay, well, I have a new enemy. You know what I mean, then maybe we can start to clarify that a little bit.

Yeah! So anything else we didn't mention today?

Um, I don't think so. I think we covered all we wanted to cover for today, there's a lot more we want to say about cultural differences. But we'll save that for another time.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So that's the big thing is, you know, we want to talk about awareness today and everything we're talking about in relation to the other. So not just thinking, this person is from this country. So he must be this right? We just have to have awareness around this. So the big things that we covered today, right, we covered how different cultures say no and disagree. And then we gave some specific tips to these questions, right. How do you disagree when you work in a multicultural environment? What are some useful phrases, we gave some use of phrases around that? adapting to the culture of keeping your identity that one? And then, of course, the big question of if someone's just being rude, or is it a cultural thing? So yeah, so that was a great talk today. And, of course, in our webinars, and in our courses, we cover this as well. So that's one thing to watch out for.

Absolutely. And we also post transcripts and takeaways and all these phrases that we've said, you'll be able to download them from our blog. So perfect. All right. It was such a pleasure to do this episode with you today, Simon.

Absolutely. Paola, thank you, again for meeting up, and yeah, episode nine. It was a good one. And we'll of course be covering more cultural aspects in the future. But that's it for us. You know, follow us write a review. We'd be glad to hear mail and any questions we'd be glad to hear as well. And other than that, keep learning.

And that's all we have for you today. We hope you enjoyed it, and remember to subscribe to Talaera Talks. We'll be back soon with more! And visit our website at for more valuable content on business English. You can also request a free consultation on the best ways for you and your team to improve your communication skills. So have a great day and keep learning!

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