I have an acquaintance who is unable to say "no" directly. Any conversational transaction which would lead to them saying no is redirected toward the questioner.

Is there a single word or phrase to describe them?

It's not cultural. It's a (learned?) behaviour.

Indecisive is not the word I'm looking for. Neither are these.

The use case was that someone was giving out to a group of friends, treats from a recent trip to the USA, and this person was offered a packet of sweets (Jolly Ranchers) which they don't like.

The gift was non-personal and other members of the group were happy to receive them. No rudeness would have been perceived by directly refusing the gift or taking another offering. E.g. "Sorry, I'm not into those. Someone else can have them" would have been the quickest conversational route.

Instead of saying no directly, the receiver then entered a long negotiation to refuse the item without actually saying the word "no".

This inability to say "no" directly is a repeating pattern in their interactions in general, hence the curiosity about a description.

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    As anyone who has ever been to Japan will tell you - "Japanese" :) Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 20:15
  • Is the issue really with the word "no" itself or is it any instance where the person is posing a contrary idea? It sounds like they are, for whatever reason, beating around the bush and uncomfortable or unwilling to be straightforward.
    – Preston
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 4:43
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    Your title of your question is misleading at best. It is more about the politeness and wavering of the person. I would rephrase so you get better answers. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 5:32
  • Have edited slightly to clarify. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 6:22
  • @nubis: I don't think so, in regard to the example - Japanese etiquette dictates that you should at first reject non-customary favors and gifts and only accept after the giver has insisted that you accept. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 9:35

11 Answers 11


I think people-pleaser might come close to what you are looking for; although, the way I have heard it, that term generally implies a desire to please people so much that it becomes harmful to their own wants and needs, due to being so people-pleasing.

So, these folks (people-pleasing people?) have a hard time saying 'no' due to their desire to please others. However, your example might well fall outside this: whlie the person habitually does say 'no', the example given (with the candy) could also be explained by a learned reluctance to say 'no' (or some other dislike of the word) rather than a desire to please.

For those that do not fit the people-pleasing description; you might say such a person is not inclined to say 'no', or has a disinclination to saying 'no'.

For those that really hate the word, they might be averse to the word 'no'; or, perhaps, simply 'no'-averse.


If the inability to say no implied acceptance, then I'd say pushover.

Since you seem to be saying, rather, an inability to say no directly but making acceptance so unbearably complicated as to constitute an effective no, I'd say passive-aggressive.

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    Acceptance is definitely not implied here as the receiver is doing everything they can to not accept the candy (except giving an explicit "No"). It can't be passive-aggressive either because the original poster hasn't discussed the receiver's intentions. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 11:51

What you're describing does not sound like a personality trait — after all, the receiver was trying to reject the gift, rather than just silently but unwillingly accepting it. Rather, what we have here is a difference in communication styles, and this is an example of indirectness. The receiver, in his/her mind, was saying "no", and the giver just wasn't taking the hint.

"Indirectness may be reflected in routines for offering and refusing or accepting gifts or food, for instance. . . . Visitors from the Middle East and Asia have reported going hungry in England and the United States because of a misunderstanding of this message; when offered food, many have politely refused rather than accept directly, and it was not offered again."
(Muriel Saville-Troike, The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction. Wiley, 2008)

  • This is close. It's as if they have a psychological barrier to saying no. "No thanks, I don't really like those. Do you have anything else?" would have been the quickest out but impossible for person to say. Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 19:10
  • "Indirectness" can still apply, whether the root is psychological or cultural. Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 19:19

I suggest yeasayer:

a person who habitually agrees with or is submissive to others

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    The person did not agree, but disagree - they did not say no directly, but they did say no in some ways. A yeasayer would have said yes.
    – elaforma
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 19:01
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    "yaysayer" sounds funnier :p
    – Dirk v B
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 2:03
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    @DirkvB The two are pronounced identically.
    – Anonym
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:22

I'm going to say polite refusal. It can be present as a social skill, as a say-no characteristic or as incorporated in a culture.

As a culture, Japanese people are the master of "saying no without saying no".

For example, Japanese word iie, which translates to "no", is rarely used. They use the word chigaimasu, which is a polite way of saying no, and translates to "different" (or "wrong" in some contexts.)

In general, this kind of indirect people can seem as a waffler also because of the vagueness and indecisiveness in their speech and their understatement can be explained as an unobtrusive behavior. This behavior can show itself as both a polite hesitation for a desired offer and a polite refusal of an undesired offer.

  • I wouldn't consider "polite" wasting my time with a complex conversation when you had already decided before starting it. Unless the conversation was somehow particularly interesting anyway.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 12:49
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    @Lohoris: I guess not everyone is you. Polite can be interpreted as a general concept. There are different ways to convey it.
    – ermanen
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 13:43
  • That's a safe guess.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 13:44

I like the word acquiescent for your requirement.


It might be a case of non-assertiveness or meekness.

nonassertive: not aggressively self-assured, though not necessarily lacking in confidence

meek: having a gentle or quiet nature : not wanting to fight or argue with other people


Jaherr is German and literally translates to Yes-man. This is a good term for someone who is a subordinate.

Someone who is like, for example, that kid at school who is always getting in trouble because he does everything the "Cool kids" tell him to do...

He is a follower.

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    Welcome to EL&U. As this is a site for English enthusiasts, I imagine the original poster was looking for an English word; there are many German loanwords in English, but this one has no currency.
    – choster
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 3:22
  • @choster: Yes-man is an English term. Someone who does not say no (esp. to authority) is yes-man. I wrote this as an answer myself, before I realized that Another Tim had written the same thing (I deleted my redundant answer).
    – Drew
    Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 5:25

This sounds to me like a cultural habit. Persons from some other cultures avoid saying "no" directly. As far as my search went (I spent less than 5 min searching), I could find no single word to describe this phenomenon.

If it is not a cultural thing, and it is simply the individual's personal "issues" getting in the way of saying the word "no," you may be able to say that they had verbophobia, or Logophobia, which describe the fear of word(s) (http://www.thinkingclearly.org/phobia-fear-of-words.htm). I am not sure there would be a specific word for "fear of the word 'no.'"

  • Nice thought but it's not a cultural value for the person. It's close to Logo-phobia though. Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 17:11

I think that the person in question can be defined as irresolute in the sense that even with a simple decision to make he/she remains wavering, hesitating, unable to to decide and in the end accepts passively what is proposed or asked to do.


If they go to great lengths to reveal their intentions without explicitly stating them, then how do you like the term, passive-assertive?

This person is out of their element or situationally ignorant because they are trying to communicate with a high-context cultural mindset when a low-context cultural one is sufficient (e.g. "Sorry I'm not into those. Someone else can have them").

More about high/low contexts: http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html

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