Five tips for saying no to a native English speaker without saying no

Have you ever received an answer from a native English speaker for something, and you weren’t quite sure whether it was a positive or negative response? They didn’t say no but somehow you had the feeling that they weren’t saying yes either? Or did you find out that the ‚yes‘ wasn’t really a yes – it was only meant to appease you or was used as a way of backing out of a conversation?


In Germany it is acceptable to ask for something directly. However, this may be seen by others, particularly native English speakers, as demanding. Additionally, saying no is something that, in my opinion, many native English speakers are bad at. We have many fears – social embarrassment, being seen as pushy, concerns that you might not like us if we say no, or that if we say no that person won’t do anything for us again. We hide behind phrases such as ‚I’m terribly sorry, but…‘ ‚Would you mind if…‘ Indeed, many English textbooks teach this language as a way of softening, but in my experience in the UK this is the wrong kind of softening because it lacks honesty and integrity. Am I really terribly sorry? When I say ‚would you mind‘ am I suggesting there is a choice when in fact I would rather you didn’t choose?


This is particularly difficult for German speakers. How can Germans say no in a more indirect but still completely honest way? And how can German watch out for a yes that’s really a no?

Here are my five tips:


One: Acknowledge or thank the person, particularly if it is an unusual initiative:

Thank you for asking me David to…

I appreciate you asking me David to…


Two: Instead of saying ’no‘ or ‚I don’t want to‘ say

I’d rather not…

I’d prefer not to…


Three: Once you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, give your reason and identify yourself with the decision.

‚I’m not prepared to because…‘ Speak in the first person and state how you are personally affected.

Achtung! Note that many native English speakers, particularly the British, are bad at doing this and may hide behind a third party or a rule or regulation. If someone is trying to say no to you using this, watch out for social cues or ask more questions to find out more information.

If you need more time to make the decision then ask for it.


Four: Give out ’no‘ vibes. Keep eye contact and have a firm, steady voice. Don’t speak too fast.


Five: if someone is persistent then accept any valid points and repeat your ‚No‘. For example, ‚I accept that it’s a good opportunity but it’s not something that I’m prepared to do‘.

Keep your voice level.


These tips are based on Ken Back and Kate Back’s book ‚Assertiveness at Work‘. I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in learning more about the correct level of directness from a British perspective.

Five tips to use friendliness and warmth in business with an English speaker

During my last trip to the UK, I hired a car at the airport. Whilst I was waiting in the car hire showroom, the assistants began to make conversation with me. They asked me how my flight was, where I was travelling to, whether I was on a business journey or meeting family, and so on. They were trying to show friendliness, be positive and put me in a good mood. However, both sides knew that we were not trying to develop a friendship. We were both aware that the interaction was a superficial one. We were being friendly to each other, but we weren’t creating a friendship.


Culture specialist Kurt Lewin would describe this kind of interaction taking place in a ‚peach culture‘. People tend to be more friendly with others that they have just met. They may share information about themselves, use first names, or even ask personal questions. However, if you go any further you reach a hard shell – there is usually no desire to develop a friendship.


I’ve had a number of experiences with customer service in Germany that are very different to the one I’ve just described in the UK. When I first arrived in Germany, my impression of those who served me in shops were that they were cold and offhand. Sometimes I even found them to be a little rude! Where was the smile and the small talk? Over time I got used to being treated with a minimum of contact and a minimum of friendliness. I began to realise that it wasn’t personal and it wasn’t because people didn’t like me. I began to understand to that the focus was on the product and the price, rather than creating ‚good feelings‘. It took me a while to get to know people, but, once I did, I found that Germans were warm and friendly towards me – and that this was a sign of offering genuine friendship.


Kurt Lewin described this interaction as taking place within a ‚coconut culture‘.  In a coconut culture, people are more closed. They don’t immediately smile at people or ask personal questions. However, over time they become warmer and friendlier, and any ‚friendliness‘ demonstrates genuine friendship.


Why do native English speakers behave like peaches? Are there any advantages in you becoming more ‚peachy‘? In his book ‚What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School‘, Mark McCormack says the following:


‚All things being equal, people will buy from a friend. All things being not quite so equal, people will still buy from a friend‘.


You can therefore see that demonstrating warmth and friendship, albeit on a superficial level, is promoted a way of doing business. It’s even expected of you if you wish to be more successful.


So how can you be more peachy in your business dealings? Here are my five tips:


One: Be warm in your dealings with people. Smile and say hello. Be a person with an identity.


Two: Choose a more friendlier, more personable means of communication when the opportunity is offered to you. For example, you could decide to pick up the phone instead of writing an email.


Three: If you’re visiting an English speaking country or are in a meeting, take some time to informally communicate with people. Be interested in their lives, ask questions and make small talk!


Four: Here are some phrases you could use when making small talk:

So, how are you enjoying…?

Am I right in thinking you…?

So, tell me more about…?

Oh, that’s interesting, because I….?

Five: remember that it’s up to you as to how much you want to reveal. You don’t have to talk about everything. Choose the cards from your hand that you want to show.


Overall, keep in mind the difference between friendliness and friendship.

Five tips to ask a British person to do something for you

I spent many years working in local government in the UK. The job was quite a tricky one because I often had to ask people to do things that I did not manage or was not responsible for. Directly asking for something to be done did not always get an immediate response and achieve ‚buy in‘. I learnt that when I had something in common with the person, or I found something out about them, that it somehow made my request more easier for them to digest and that they were, in a way, more compliant.


However, you may be seen as excellent communicator in your own culture, but what works well in your culture may not go down well in native English speaker culture, and particularly in the UK.


I remember that we employed a German girl in our office in the UK. She was, basically, ‚fresh off the plane‘. She was very capable, able and respected as being good at her job. However, her way of dealing people left her colleagues somewhat confused. She would go directly to people and ask for things to be done. It seemed that she assumed her wishes, expectiations and demands were immediately evident to other people. Although people didn’t dislike her, they politely avoided doing things for her.


The UK is unusual in being a more relationship based business culture when compared to other English speaker countries and Germany. As a result, and in my experience, day-to-day business activites are conducted on a more personal level. This is highlighted in Erin Meyer’s book ‚The Culture Map‘


I certainly found that success came by forming some kind of trust and mutual bond. I would like to give you tips that were successful for me when I worked in the UK.


One: I found it good to start off with a minute of smalltalk and developing ‚rapport‘, in other words, building a connection with the other person . Show that you focused on and interested in what the other person is doing.. Is there something that you have in common with or know about this person? But not for too long!


Two: I would be clear and concise about what you are asking the person to do – if necessary, I would put the reasons after the suggestion and not before. Although you’ve made the small-talk and the rapport it’s important to be clear about what you want the person to do.


Three: use downgraders when you ask the person to do something. This is used a lot in British culture. It is a kind of formal politeness that shows respect and goodwill to the other person.  Im my opinion it’s a British way and more complex way of  using the ‚Sie’form.

minor, possibly, quite, relatively, somewhat…


Four: Ask open-ended questions when you want to gain commitment from the person.. This is again a form of politeness, showing respect for the other person.

How difficult would it be for you to…?

When would you be able to do this by?

What’s possible for you?


Five: show appreciation at the end of your request – in my experience British colleagues respond well to this. Phrases you could are:

‚thank you for your time‘

‚I appreciate you doing this‘

Or you could even show some personal gratitude ‚I’m pleased about this‘.

Five tips for giving feedback to a native English speaker

When I arrived in Gemany, I felt that instructions, advice and feedback were delivered to me in a very direct manner. It took me aback. At first, it seemed cold and slightly hurtful. Sometimes if felt very authoritarian – as if I was in the army and I was receiving an order from a sargeant-general! The directness did not ‚feel‘ appropriate to me. Where was the positivity to match the negativity? However, over time I got to used to it. Eventually I found the separation of the ‚order‘ from the ‚person‘ quite refreshing, although it took me some time to realise that the two were not interlinked.


My first job in the UK was in marketing and I carried out merchandising visits to supermarkets. Even though I was there to point out what was right and wrong with a merchandising display, the employer deemed it important that I should try and win respect and get people to listen to me when giving feedback. I was therefore coached, when giving feedback, to give it in the style of a ‚praise sandwich‘. I was expected to off with something positive, give the negative feedback in the middle part, and then finish off with something positive. It was important to give my feedback in a specific tone. The types of words and phrases used were particularly important in order to balance the negative with the positive. It was important to do this in order get the response I wanted from a particular person. Without this approach, I could have come across as rude and aggressive, and out to cause trouble.


So here are my five tips for giving feedback to a native English speaker:


One: start with something positive or a thank you. Even if you think or expect everything to be satisfactory, point out something good that has been done. ‚Something good‘ here is something you may expect to have been done, and in your eyes is satisfactory. Praise the satisfactory!


Two: when giving the negative feedback downgraders and understatement. It helps to add adjectives such as ’somewhat‘ ‚quite‘ ‚a bit‘ ‚a little bit‘ ‚reasonably‘.


Three: a way to win people over is to reveal a bit of yourself and your German culture. For example, you could say ‚we’re not in the habit of doing this‘ and explain how Germans are more direct because the task is separated from the person. You will come across as more of a person and as a consequence people will warm to you. It also helps you if you miss the mark slightly (as you will do sometimes). A little self-effacement goes a long way!


Four: Show appreciation again at the end  – basically repeating point one – but find something different to talk about. Remember, praise the satisfactory!


Five: Over time remember to balance negative feedback with positive feedback over time – negative feedback will be accepted as being genuine, and the change you want to see from the feedback is more likely to be brought into effect.


You may well have seen the ‚what the English say and what the English really mean‘ table that appears every so often on social media. The big part of this is that is demonstrate the importance of linguistics not only to avoid miscommunication, but also that adjusting your feedback linguistically will give you the feedback that you want.

Five tips for giving business information in an email to a native English speaker

One of my first office-based jobs was as an Assistant Project Manager. I was responsible for servicing meetings – having to send out agendas, minutes, notify clients of meetings etc. One time I sent out an email explaining the reason for having a meeting, and, having explained why, then put the important actions at the end. I was told off for doing this – my manager said that no-one would notice this information at the end. I was instructed to clearly put the most important information at the beginning and to keep the email concise and short.


Having mentally adopted this approach of scanning for information, I continued with this approach in Germany.  I would get letters from agencies, Amts and Health insurance starting with rules and regulations. In my native speaker mind this meant that there was nothing important in the letters and put it to one side. However, I returned to one of the letters some time later to find an ‚umgehend‘ – in the last paragraph and on the second page!


I discussed this with a German client recently and she described the email process as follows: ‚we have a circle, it gets smaller and smaller, and then we get to the point‘. Contrast this with comments from American culture analyst Erin Meyer, who says that, when giving information, you begin by saying what you want to say, then say what you want to say, and then conclude with saying what you want to say. You get to the point immediately!

From this we can see that you can have the correct grammar and vocabulary but you can still fail to get the message through. So here are five tips to ensure that a native English speaker picks up the information you want to give to them in an email.


One: Use a first name. Using a ‚Mr Chandler‘ is not appropriate for business culture.


Two: Start with the facts. Put the most important point at the beginning. You should explain your point in no more than three sentences.  When I met important Heads of Department, I was trained to make my point in under a minute.


Three: Keep the length of the email short. Think about whether it fits on a smartphone screen or not. Erin Meyer states that if it doesn’t fit on a smartphone, it risks not being read.


Four: Keep your sentences to 15 – 18 words. The Institute of Plain English make this a basic recommendation. When I wrote forms for grant applications, I was trained to keep my language short and simple.


Five: Continue with background data if necessary, but remember that ’short is sweet‘. Native English speakers will want a concise explanation.


Achtung! Note that this is a strategy to give important information, and not necessarily a strategy for every email you write to a native English speaker. There are different strategies for different situations – a topic for future blog posts.

Five tips for communicating an idea to a native English speaker


One thing I learned in business in the UK was that ‚it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it‘.  I had to approach people from a horizontal level rather than to be seen to be issuing orders and was particularly important if I wanted the other person to buy in to my idea. I would therefore try to develop ideas and convey it in a cooperative sense and in a respectful manner. It was a kind of ‚formal politeness‘ and I would use and mixture of phrases and words to demonstrate this.


To an English speaker, the German way of communicating ideas can be seen too direct. Sometimes there is the expectation from Germans that your idea will be carried out, and it comes across as authoritarian. I might not actually do what you suggest!


So, if you are looking to communicate an idea to an English speaker, here are five tips:


One: Build what you what to communicate around the principles of discussion and cooperation. Come in with the frame of mind that the goal is to develop ideas together.


Two: you could use the following phrases:

How about..

What about…

I have some suggestions.

If you ask me, we should…

…would be my proposal

In my opinion

As far as I’m concerned…


Three: don’t frontload your idea with background information. Be concise. If necessary, add the background information after the request. Native English speakers will not expect to hear the theory behind your idea before the presentation of the actual idea itself. If you put the theory beforehand, my experience is that English speakers will lose the point of what you are actually trying to say. They will expect to hear it at the beginning.


Four: Ask for the opinion of the native English speaker. Note that English native speakers will not offer their opinion as forthrightly as a German person. This will make you seem less authoritarian and gives you the impression that you are developing the idea together and bringing buy in from the side of the native English speaker. Obviously resistance to new tasks will always be expected, but involving and convincing a native English speaker rather than just lecturing them will be beneficial for you and the acceptance of your idea in the long run.


Five: Conclude your communication by presenting the idea as if it were one alternative which will be considered alongside others. Again, it sounds less dictatorial and more cooperative.

You can use the following phrases:

This is my opinion, for what it’s worth

That how I see it