“Yes, no or maybe”. The diplomat and the lady.

So when does “yes” mean “yes” and when does “no” mean “no”?

Well it depends. On what, you might well ask?

It depends on who is speaking: who they are, their culture, gender and role. Some of these factors and at times all of them. There is more to this than meets the eye. Let me start with an anecdote told to me by the French trade commissioner in Wellington some years ago.  The original French translates well into English as it probably does into many languages, except one like Thai that apparently has no word for “no”.

“What is the difference between a lady and a diplomat?”

  • If a lady says “no”, she means “maybe”.
  • If  lady says “maybe”, she means “yes”.
  • If a lady says “yes”, she is no lady.
  • Now if a diplomat says “yes”, he means “maybe”. (Don’t blame me for being sexist, I am merely an accurate translator)
  • If a diplomat says “maybe”, he means “no”.
  • Finally if a diplomat says “no”, he is no diplomat!

Another way of looking at this is to contrast honesty and politeness.  A wonderful way to illustrate the dichotomy is the following saying:

“The Dutch are too honest to be polite and the New Zealanders are too polite to be honest.” Watch the DVD “Here to Stay Series 2“.

I can relate to this very well from my time as NZ Trade Commissioner to Germany & Switzerland, when I was based in Hamburg.  The North Germans are very direct and you always know where you stand.  Hamburg is in stark contrast to Vienna, where people can be polite, but don’t take what they say at face value.

What is the moral of this story? Be aware of culture and the situation. In a business setting the confusion is more likely to be associated with “yes” , which could mean any one of: yes, maybe or no.  Forewarned is forearmed!

Simon Fawkes
Business to Markets Ltd


  1. love it – being Germanic i just can’t understand what the hang up is with the word No – it rolls off the tongue soooooo easily – really!

  2. Please note that this anecdote has nothing to do with a woman saying “no”. It contrasts a diplomat being too eager to say “no” with a lady being too eager to say “yes”. The TV series Downton Abbey is a good portrayal of “ladies”, as opposed to “women”. The comparison makes no sense if you replace “lady” with “woman”.

    I stress the last point of the post. In a business setting the confusion is more likely to be associated with “yes”, which may not mean what you think it means.

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