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Norine Dresser

"For over thirty years, cross-cultural customs and beliefs have been the focus of my research, writing and
university teaching."


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OnLine Multicultural Manners Column

Yes or No?

Covering the Albanian up-rising, American reporters in Tirana, the capital, ask a driver if he can take them to the airport. The driver shakes his head, “no,” so they look for another driver and receive the same response. After several encounters like this, they learn that in Albania shaking the head “no” means “yes” and nodding the head “yes” means “no.”

Reversal of meaning of yes/no gestures occurs in Bulgaria, too. While in a restaurant, tourists asked if stuffed cabbage was available. The waiter nodded “yes,” but the stuffed cabbage never appeared. The disappointed diners discovered that when the waiter shook his head “yes,” he meant that they had none.

Other kinds of yes/no confusions can occur.

Ron taught English in China and needed to reschedule a class. He approached each student and asked, “Can you be here at 8 a.m. next Tuesday?” They all answered affirmatively.

Ron eagerly awaited his students the following Tuesday at 8 a.m. None appeared. He waited until 9:30 a.m.; the classroom remained empty. Ron had forgotten that in China, as in many Asian cultures, it is disrespectful to say no, especially to a superior. Because Ron’s students held him in high esteem, they did not want to dissatisfy him by telling him they could not be there. Rather than upset him, they gave Ron the answer they thought he desired. Although Ron had been told about this custom during orientation meetings, he did not remember until too late.

© Norine Dressser, 4/12/97