Hell no

A funny, casual alternative to 遠慮 is お断り. Technically it’s derived from the keigo(お+断り+します) of 断る(ことわる), which means to reject or refuse, but I think the actual usage is more casual. It’s generally used as a terse method of shooting down an unreasonable request.


Daniel: 俺と付き合ってくれ!     Go out with me!
Sumiko Nishioka: お断り。       Hell no!

There’s absolutely no way I could get a date with Sumiko Nishioka, and she and the imaginary audience in my brain all knew that, which is why she frowned and okotowari’d me, causing the audience to laugh at my suffering.

It’s generally delivered in a flat, flat tone with an air of “I’m not amused, asshole.” Although the English “Hell no” is hardly ever delivered in a flat tone, the meaning is just about the same, and it’s also capable of generating laughter.

(Side note:

I’m convinced that part of the reason お断り is so funny is that it doesn’t have any of the trappings of Japanese politeness – no 残念ながら, no hesitation, no apologies. Compare it to the conversation with my supervisor below and you can probably tell that the second sentence in both have, essentially, the same meaning and are merely delivered in starkly different tones.)

How to Say No by Saying Yes

Japanese people hate saying no. Not only do they hate saying no, they even hate using negative endings to verbs. This presents a problem for many foreigners, who upon arrival suddenly find that there are many things they would like very much not to do.

Well, have no fear, citizens, there is a wonderful Japanese word called 遠慮(えんりょ). Encapsulated within these two tiny-yet-complex characters is a phrase with a built-in no. Yes, that’s right, by doing this verb you are actually not doing something.

For example, the following conversation:

Supervisor: ダニエル先生、あのう、来週飲み会ありますが、どうですか。
Daniel: あそうですか。誘ってくださってありがとうございます。残念ながら、今月お金がちょっとぎりぎりで、遠慮します。

Now, in English:

Supervisor: Hey Daniel, umm, there’s a drinking party next week. You in?
Daniel: Oh yeah? Thank you for inviting me. Unfortunately I’m a bit short with cash this month, so I’ll hold back.

If you wanted to get even more polite you could say, 遠慮させていただきます, and utilize the causative tense.

遠慮 literally means “to hold back” or “to be reserved,” something like that, but what it really means is no. It reminds me a lot of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where the captain says, “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” The lady’s all like, WTF? and then he goes, “IT MEANS NO!”

遠慮 is Japanese code word for no. Everyone understands the meaning, and it can efficiently and politely be used to say “No thanks.”

(A side note:

It’s good practice to thank people for an invitation whether or not you accept or decline. That way the invitations will continue to come. )


I dedicate this blog to two people.

The first is my 6th grade Spanish teacher, Senorita Quimbay. When I started 6th grade I couldn’t speak a word, and she drilled Spanish into my brain. I loved the class. I loved copying my test mistakes twice to earn points. I loved conjugating Spanish verbs. I loved filling in the blanks in our textbook. She was the ruler by which I measured all future language teachers, and only a handful ever equaled her.

The other person is the 12-year-old me who miraculously absorbed Spanish. He always did Spanish homework first. If there was a vocabulary word he didn’t know on a test, he could sit there and, by concentrating, force the word to materialize. Maybe he never really learned to speak it that well, but he did love learning it.

I wish I could’ve started studying Japanese when I was 12, but unfortunately it had to wait until I was 19. By that time my brain had already partially calcified and become unable to learn Japanese to the extent that I could have learned Spanish. No longer able to quickly memorize lists of words or force vocab to appear, I am reduced to hard work and clever thinking. This blog is my thoughts on the Japanese language and learning Japanese.