Business Culture

Different ways to to say ‘yes’ in Chinese – 是的 (Shì de)3 min read

28 February 2021 3 min read


Different ways to to say ‘yes’ in Chinese – 是的 (Shì de)3 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

There are lots of different ways to “Yes” in Chinese, with subtle differences. I have counted more than 20.

All are a bit different and deployed in slightly different circumstances. The following can all be used to say “yes”:

  • (shì – ‘to be’), (hǎo – ‘good’), (xíng – ‘ok’), (duì – ‘correct’), (yǒu – ‘to have’), 嗯 (en – uhuh, or yep);
  • 可以 (kě yǐ – ‘can’), 当然 (dāng rán – ‘of course’), 没错 (méi cuò – ‘no mistake’).

And my personal favourite, 欧了 (ōu le) – which is pronounced ‘o’ as in ‘OK’, and is one of the few Chinese words (albeit slang) that comes from the English.

Different kinds of “yes”

A “yes” is generally not what it seems. There are three types. In order of highest to lowest frequency:

  • a yes that means no ( “no-yes”)
  • a yes that means possibly ( “maybe-yes”)
  • a yes that means yes ( “yes-yes”)

What is a “no-yes”?

A “no-yes” is not dishonest, and it is not being intentionally rude, or deceptive. It is merely a part of a process of going from a yes… to a no.

I am not entirely sure why it happens, but I would guess a “no-yes” exists for one or a combination of the following reasons:

  • Face – saving face of the deployer or receiver of what should be a “no”; either not wanting to embarrass the other side, or not wanting to appear to be unable to deliver. This is especially true in formal situations, or situations with lots of other people there.
  • Uncertainty – this is especially true with dealing with Chinese overseas. What is possible through flexibility and adaptability in China, may not be somewhere as straight-laced and slow as the UK. I have seen adventurous Chinese entrepreneurs stunned into speechlessness by how long things can take in the UK.
  • Surprise – the thought bubble above the Chinese brain: “how can the foreigner ask such an odd question? Let’s just say yes until we know what to do with it!”
  • Over-optimism – Chinese have a tendency to be optimists. Anything is possible in China. This can lead to great things as it has demonstrated. But on occasions, it can also lead to committing to something, having every intention to follow-through, but gradually going from “yes” to a “no” as reality sets in.

How to spot a “no-yes”?

There is no hard and fast rule, and any one of the 20 or more ways to say “yes”, can all be used to deliver a genuine and absolute positive.

But there are a few to watch out for:

  • 行 (xíng) – this always seems a very vanilla way to say yes to me, and it often has a “no” lurking not too far behind it – beware!
  • 可以 (kě yǐ) -”fine” or “OK” – often proceeded by 应该 (should) – this basically means “no”, and it should be taken as such.
  • 问题不大 (wèn tí bù dà) – “not a big problem” – which is distinct from 没错 (méi cuò – not incorrect) or 没问题 (méi wèn tí – no problem) which are more emphatic; it leaves things open to reverse at a later time, while keeping things positive.
  • 差不多 (chà bù duō) – the immortal Chinese words which mean “more or less” or “pretty much”; it can used to say yes, but of all the “no-yes-s” this is the worst one, run a mile if you hear it.

It’s more important to watch for the delivery: a short pause before the response? A nervous smile or awkward laugh? Quickly moving on to a different topic?

These are all subtle signs that can be picked up.

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