Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Never say "no." Negotiations, the Japanese way.

I was a kid, an anthropology student, at the bar with my bad-ass cousin Dave Yaeger. Dave, in a way, lived my dream. Texas Instruments flew him all around Asia to do something—I don't know what— involving silicon chips. I launched my routine language-bother.

Me: "How do you say 'hello' in Japanese?
Dave: "sdf;lkjasdf"                     (look man, I don't remember)
Me: "Awesome! How do you say 'no'?"
Dave: "You don't."

Dave said that in Japan people circumnavigate and imply instead of refusing things. A few years later, on the subject of business deals, Dr. Thomas Ricento clarified, giving me the fateful socio-linguistic insight that turned into a way of life:

"Instead of saying 'no', just make the terms of agreement impossible."

I think that the Japanese are on to something. The fact is, my "yes" always has a price. There is always a "yes, if " that I can wholeheartedly mean.

There was a time in my life when I made $18 an hour teaching free workforce ESL classes in a community center. I had already been a professor and a writer, and I felt like this was one of my life's major downswings.  I had moved back in with my parents and felt like a complete waste of humanity. I got an offer for a $50/h full-time job writing textbooks. "Quit!" everyone said. I did. In a way.

I made an offer: "I love workforce ESL, and I'd love to stay here. Care raising my pay to $50 an hour?"

They said no.

This was, of course, patently absurd. My boss didn't even make that much. I was soon writing textbooks. You could say that all I did by asking was waste a few minutes of my time. Maybe.

Eventually, the textbook company went bankrupt. (It was absentee-run by an American expat on a beach in Thailand who was prone to impromptu month-long disappearances from the grid. Freaking cool guy, actually.) I scored an adjunct gig at the local college. It was hard times, again, and I was applying everywhere. I got a few strong maybes from the Georgetown English Language Fellows Program and an Emirati college, and later a solid offer from Yasar University in Izmir.

Serendipitously, I was introduced to my college vice president at an otherwise pointless thing that involved meatballs and powerpoints. She asked if I would stay around for the next semester.
Nnnn . . .yes.
. . . if, 
. . . well, the Emiratis pay $50K tax-free and throw in a house, a car, and private school for my kids. . . . so, yes, I'd love to keep working at Grayson, just {patently absurd demands listed here}.

I'm the only guy I've ever heard of working in college governance at under 30 years old.


  1. I remember hearing (I think it was on some NPR program a few years back) about some composer who once contacted Thomas Pynchon about adapting one of his novels into an opera. His response was to say yes, provided that the only instrument used was the kazoo.

  2. I remember now. lol

    ohio gozimus (spelling?)

  3. ohayou gozaimasu (the "u" at the end of "ohayou" means that the "o" sound gets extended, and the "u" at the end of "gozaimasu" is silent.