Non, Nyet, NO: Teaching ESL Students the Fine Art of Saying “No”

Non, Nyet, NO
Teaching ESL Students the Fine Art of Saying “No”

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 6,522 views |

It’s been a difficult year, replete with demanding students.

Let’s see: there was the one who wanted to make up the whole term in a week and then the student who did nothing right all semester and then expected me to change her grade after she turned in a last paper, after I had submitted grades, also done incorrectly. They were both so surprised at hearing “no” from me—no, they couldn’t make up the term; no I wouldn’t change the grade—that they went to the dean, who also had issues with “no,” apparently, and initially supported the students.

It can be hard to say “no.” Indeed, in a number of cultures—including English-speaking—saying “no” is inappropriate, and a series of evasive tactics have evolved: different polite ways of saying “no” (in American English, “I’ll think about it”; “Let me get back to you,” and “We’ll see”—my mother’s personal favorite) . Many individuals also find it difficult to say “no”—it is easier, for one thing, to say “yes”: less conflict, for example, and generally people feel more kindly toward you, in the short term at least. In addition, in American culture in recent years, many people seem to have a hard time hearing “no” as they are so used to getting agreement on all requests, no matter how unreasonable. We are a consumer culture, after all, and the customer is always right. For example, late last year New York City was hit by a hurricane, Hurricane Sandy, which devastated large portions of the city. However, it was days after before the participants of the New York Marathon, scheduled right after the hurricane, really understood that the marathon wasn’t going to happen that year because city officials were so evasive in what should have been obvious—New York, which still had debris cluttering major streets, was simply not in any position to be hosting a marathon in less than a week after this devastating event. And then some marathoners reacted with outrage, feeling betrayed, perhaps to an extent understandably, that so much time had elapsed before informing them, after they had already travelled to the city and booked hotel rooms. So actually saying “no” at the appropriate time is a necessary skill for the well-being of everyone involved. And because so many unreasonable requests are thrust on us these days, students have to learn to say “no” in a culturally appropriate way.

Consider the Following Steps to Saying “No”

  1. 1

    Identify When to Say “No”

    Part of the problem with saying “no” is even knowing when to say “no.” Is it okay to say “no” to someone asking to borrow your book? Babysit her child? Borrow money? It’s up the individual, mostly, to decide. Part of this is training students to recognize their personal limits—what is and isn’t okay with them. Many students may have limited understanding of what personal rights and boundaries are, so some discussion of this, what are reasonable requests, is a starting point.

  2. 2

    Say “No”

    It seems elementary, but many people don’t really see this as an option—we are so conditioned to saying “yes.” Here some direct instruction in various ways of saying “no” might be in order. In many cultures, there is either no word at all for “no” or a number of preferred ways of saying it. In American English, for example, instead of “no” many people say “I’ll think about it,” “Let me get back to you on that,” or “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” These carry much the same meaning as “no” without the bluntness. Teaching students these different variants of “no” will help them socially and professionally.

  3. 3

    Offer an Alternative

    Often rather than a simple, flat “no,” something more is required, if a continued relationship with the requesting party is desired. Here is where suggesting alternatives can come in: Not comfortable with lending your car? Offer a ride instead. Can’t babysit tonight? Offer your list of reliable babysitters. Discussion of these alternatives to offer can tie into the conversation on when to say “no,” as students discuss what their boundaries are, what they are and are not willing to do, and what they can offer instead.

Start Teaching Saying “No”

  1. 1

    Teach the Language to Use

    We rarely just say “no” in American culture. Introduce students to some of the common phrases used for “no”: “I’ll have to think about it,” “We might look into that at a later date,” and so forth. Also identifying who to use each form of “no” with is important. Have students match a phrase with the appropriate person: “I can’t believe you’d ask that!”could sometimes be appropriate with my brother, for example, while “I regret that won’t be possible, sir,” is more so to my boss.

  2. 2

    “Broken Record”

    Some people, unfortunately, just don’t understand that “no” means “no” and will continue to badger. Here is where teaching “the broken record technique” comes in. (“Broken record” is a misnomer for repeating the same phrase over and over, like a scratched—not broken—record. A broken record of course will not play at all, but this is the American idiom for repeating something over and over.) Teach students to just keep repeating variations of no—“I’m afraid not”; “I’m really sorry; I can’t do that”--and so forth until the requesting party finally understands. This is also an opportunity to practice the language learned in step one.

  3. 3


    Have students work in groups and come up with requests, reasonable or ridiculous: “Can I borrow your pen?” to “Could you please walk my cat every day while I’m on vacation?” Then have students break into pairs and practice requesting and responding with agreement or refusal. This will prepare students for what to say in different situations when they are asked something they are not willing to do, and it also gives them the chance to practice the language of requests and responses.

  4. 4

    Put It in an Email

    Often it is best to deal with unreasonable requests by email, if possible. This buys you time, gives you a chance to compose your thoughts, and put together a polite but firm refusal—all very difficult in a face-to-face situation in your first, much less second, language. Therefore, asking a person to please email her request is an option because, once it is in writing, she may herself see how ridiculous it sounds and think again about sending the email. And if she doesn’t, this will buy the time necessary to consider and craft a thoughtful response. Finally, if the request is actually granted, it is in writing, and can be referred to as necessary (“As you can see below, we agreed to make 200, not 400, sandwiches for the charity event.)

So is it easy to say “no”? It probably will never be so, in any language. But by identifying reasonable versus unreasonable requests, learning the language of “no,” and role-playing different situations, orally and in writing, students can learn appropriate ways to say “no.”

What are some ways you teach “no”?

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