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Dating: “No” Means “Try Harder,” Unless It Means “No”

January 11, 2009

I ask a lot of Koreans questions regarded to dating, because I find the differences in dating practices and “dating cultures” to be interesting. About a year ago a Korean friend told me that she ignored her current boyfriend for about a month when they first met, because she wanted him to “work hard” to win her affections. She was testing him to see what he thought: was she worth a month of rejection and refusal? Would he persevere because he thought she was special? Was his affection strong? His persistence was eventually rewarded with her affection.

I found this to be fascinating, so I started asking around. I’ve polled at least a dozen women, and all but one said “Yeah, we say ‘No’ as a test.” So in this case, “no” means “try harder.” Last night I was talking to two Korean women who were fluent in English (English educators) and I said “I’m sure the men know this right?” They confirmed this was so. “So don’t you ladies have a problem sometimes when ‘no’ actually means ‘NO’?” They answered with a resounding YES. “It often happens when a guy won’t quit trying to date you, even though you tell him no, because he thinks he just needs to try harder.”

An interesting side note is that Korean women not learned in the dating culture of Americans sometimes preclude themselves from dating Americans they might have really hit it off with, because the American asks them out, and they say “no.” The American then says “Okay,” and never asks them again. The Korean woman may interpret this as “Oh, he wasn’t that into me, or else he would have kept asking me,” and the American is thinking “She said ‘no,’ so she’s not interested.

When I was single, I once tested this out. There was a woman I liked, and I asked her out. She politely rebuffed my advances, so I asked her, point blank: “Is this a real ‘no,’ or are you just testing me to see if I’m really interested? Because I’m American and I’m taught to respect a woman’s decision, so if you say ‘no,’ I won’t bother you anymore, but if it isn’t really no,” and at this point I grinned, and she grinned back, “if it is more of a ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly,’ then you’d better tell me, because if so I’ll do whatever I have to do to take you out.” Then I gave some corny examples of Herculean feats I would do to win her affection. She smiled and said “In this case, ‘no’ means ‘possible’.”

From my Western cultural perspective, the implications of this seem dangerous. If men are expected to know what a woman truly wants, despite what she says, that seems to set the stage for unwanted behavior anytime a man is wrong, and “no” actually means “no.”

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff permalink
    January 13, 2009 12:57 am

    Interesting topic.

    When I started dating my wife she did not play this “no” game at all. I asked her out, she said yes and we went from there. Her friends also reported similar behavior when asked out by Koreans or Westerners. The thing is the no possibly being a maybe exists in Western culture as well. Say you date a girl back in the US and you want to get intimate with her. She might say no, as in not yet or I am not ready. The thing here is that BODY LANGUAGE speaks volumes. In Korea I would say it is similar in that a woman sends out signals when she says no. She will also send out signals after she said no if it was say a “maybe”.

    I would not say the behaviour you described is dangerous. It is a way things are done here and there are cues as to what a person is telling you.

    I can cite another example of this: apologies. My wife seldom apologizes verbally. At first I was puzzled and frustrated by this but then I understood that for many Koreans the apology does not need to be verbalized but rather expressed through actions or through body language. The cues are there, it is up to people to pick them up I think.

  2. January 13, 2009 8:04 am

    >I would not say the behaviour you described is dangerous. It is a way things are done
    >here and there are cues as to what a person is telling you.

    There are not always cues, which is why Koreans have so much trouble with amiguity, mixed messages, and miscommunication with each other in their native language. That’s one of the drawbacks to a high context culture. If you ask 10 Koreans and 10 Americans to keep track of how many times in a week they aren’t sure as to the meaning of something they’ve been told, you’ll get a higher number from Koreans. This isn’t a conclusion I’ve reached on my own; I’ve been told as much by more than one Korean language expert (when I say “language expert” I don’t mean a native speaker, I mean someone with a Ph.D.).

    The Koreans I reported talking to about dating in this article don’t share your opinion that the behavior isn’t dangerous.

  3. January 13, 2009 9:18 pm

    Oh, and one other thing: You, I presume, are not Korean. This had an effect on your wife’s behavior toward you when you were dating. I’m not saying she played “the no game” as you call it with any Koreans which may have preceded you, because in a group, different people are different; you’d be hard pressed to make a cultural declaration about Americans that I couldn’t find notable exceptions to, but that doesn’t mean the cultural attribute isn’t true.

    Whether or not your wife “played the no game” is not confirmation that the practice does or does not occur. Ask your wife if in her opinion, other Korean girls act like this.

    I’ve written more about this phenomenon.

  4. Jeff permalink
    January 13, 2009 10:40 pm

    I did say I asked my wife about this behaviour:

    “When I started dating my wife she did not play this “no” game at all. I asked her out, she said yes and we went from there. Her friends also reported similar behavior when asked out by Koreans or Westerners. ”

    Most of her friends forgo the “no means maybe” game or if they play it send out very recognizable signs when no means maybe. The point is (I think) that some Westerners may not see the cues as they are not intune to them (cultural difference at play here). Also, some Korean men may miss the cues as well if they are too obtuse.

    I suggest that if you ask Koreans if they think a specific behaviour is “dangerous” that you are loading the question and therefore getting results led by a biased question. If that is what you asked of course.

    Another point to be made, since you bring up Korean language experts, is that language makes a huge difference here. No in English does not find its exact match in Korean. The ways to say no in Korean have different meaning and depend on social setting and social position. That can feed the no can be maybe issue. As a simple example, “Babo” is a common usage word in Korean that is usually a common place insult/tease, however for English speakers it is translated as “you re stupid” and therefore holds a much heavier insult meaning.

    Along the same vein you can use “waeguk”. A word used by Koreans to identify someone who is non-Korean or an outsider (in the ethnic sense of the term). Look how many Westerners interpret this term and see prejudice in it.

    all I am saying is that culture and language are a very difficult field to define and that in this case, the no means maybe and can be dangerous idea is something that can be challenged and interpreted in many ways.

    Good discussion so far.

    PS I am not Korean as you said in your last response. I have however been married to a Korean woman for 10 years, lived in Korea for many years and am fluent in the language. I have many friends in Korea and here that are of Korean origin. That in no way makes me an authority on Korean culture but it does mean I have experience of Korea from the inside through my in-laws, nieces and nephews and friends.


  5. January 13, 2009 10:52 pm

    I asked the questions as I reported I asked them in the original post, which means I didn’t use the word “dangerous.” I just personally think the “no means try harder” message sets the stage for other situations where a guy might “try harder” when a woman says no.

    And yes, language makes a huge difference everywhere.

    And what are “very recognizable signals” to one person are not to another…and you’re making assumptions, because you’re speculating…you didn’t actually go out and ask them.

    Regarding your postscript, I was merely pointing out that the fact that you are not Korean means neither your wife nor any other Korean is fully capable of treating you like a Korean, since you can’t react like one. 10 years of marriage and fluency won’t change this.

  6. Jeff permalink
    January 14, 2009 3:19 am

    You are completely right about me not reacting like a Korean or my wife not treating me like a Korean. No debate there. We agree.

    However, my wife is Korean and lived in Korea for 25 years before even meeting me and dated during that time. That in many ways makes her a better person to comment on this that you or me. She does not have to treat me like a Korean to understand and discuss with me how Koreans treat each other when they date. See where I am going with this?

    As for the signals, my wife mentionned many of them, most related to the choice of words when saying no. Others related to actions before and after saying no and meaning maybe. The way the no is said determines if it is a “it will not happen” no or a “I am not sure”. This is where language and cues come in. I am not speculating, rather I am speaking from what my wife experienced and from discussions with the numerous Korean friends and in-laws I have.

    You personally think the no means maybe thing sets the stage for possible complications of problems later on. It is possible that happens in some cases. But then again some men never take no for an answer! In many other cases the cultural markers and linguistic cues would clue in the guy about what the woman actually means. Saying no is also often seen as a required first response to an amorous pursuit. I think one has to take this phenomenon from a much broader perspective or if you will how it fits in the greater cultural context of Korea instead of trying to analyse it as a micro-phenomenon on its own.

    Again , interesting discussion.

  7. January 14, 2009 8:14 am

    >She does not have to treat me like a Korean to understand and discuss with me how
    >Koreans treat each other when they date.

    I described a phenomenon that occurs between Koreans in Korean culture. You said your wife didn’t do this with you when you met. I said you’re not Korean, so that isn’t good evidence that the phenomenon isn’t widespread.\

    Regardless of how many signals exist a) not all women use them, and b) not all men get them. When you said “Most of her friends forgo the ‘no means maybe’ game or if they play it send out very recognizable signs when no means maybe,” you weren’t speculating? Cool. Then let’s hear some numbers: out of the total number of her friends you surveyed, how many “play the no game,” and how many don’t?

    It isn’t POSSIBLE that it happens in some cases. It DOES happen. Precisely because some guys won’t take “no” for an answer, and the “no means maybe” culture encourages this.

  8. Jeff permalink
    January 14, 2009 10:16 pm

    “It isn’t POSSIBLE that it happens in some cases. It DOES happen. Precisely because some guys won’t take “no” for an answer, and the “no means maybe” culture encourages this.”

    I never said it was not possible nor that it never happens. I do not know why you think that is what I implied. I must have worded my comments in a confusing manner. My mistake.

  9. January 14, 2009 10:18 pm

    You said “It is possible that happens in some cases.” I’m saying it is not merely a possibility, but an actuality. It does happen.

  10. Jeff permalink
    January 14, 2009 10:25 pm


    I can see you are very sensitive to comments that try to broaden your conclusions or perspective of certain things. I respect your right to run your blog in any way you see fit. I do hold a Masters and a PhD by the way, but I can very well recognize that someone who DOES NOT hold such a degree CAN have an opinion that is informed and insightful if it is based on A RELEVANT AND SIGNIFICANT POOL OF EXPERIENCE. The field of cultural studies is especially prone to this as it is relatively new and still in the throes of forming a body of work and a clearly defined foundation of concepts.

    As such, this will be my final comment on your blog because frankly, after reading your rules for comments I see this blog as limited in scope (again your choice and I respect it) and as an endeavor that is far too constricted by self imposed academic lines and limits. What you require deserves praise for its seriousness and scientific aims. But, I see it as limited in an environment that aims to discuss culture and differences between cultures. You want to discuss a topic/subject that is in constant flux and that has moving boudaries but reject people that do not hold a rigid academic standard (Masters or higher). I find this unfortunate as having a PhD has taught me one thing: education is not the only path to knowledge of something. I have a Masters in International Studies and a PhD in Political Philosophy. I also lived in Asia for numerous years and speak 2 Asian languages fluently. My ties to Asia go back 12 years and are ongoing through my work and my personal studies and again, I recgonize that degrees do not guarantee informed opinion. What they do produce all too often however is closed minded arrogance.

    Best of luck in your studies and in your quest for knowledge sir.



  11. January 14, 2009 10:52 pm

    Couple things:

    1) There is only one rule: Be nice. Did you see the page on rules? It was different from the page on guidelines.

    2) I assume your first paragraph is in reference to this sentence: “Don’t come onto this blog and start telling me how “real” inquiry is done in: cultural studies, cultural anthropology, ethnography, sociology, ethnohistory, social psychology, or psychology, unless you hold a Master’s degree or above in any of these fields.” What are you taking umbrage to? You haven’t come onto this blog and started telling my how real inquiry is done. I never said “You can’t tell me anything unless you have an advanced degree.”

    If you’ve chosen to read the guidelines as “rules,” then you are putting those restrictions on yourself. The guidelines are there so I can say “see guideline #4” without having to restate it, which is what I said on that page.

  12. Jeff permalink
    January 15, 2009 4:36 am

    I did not confuse rules for guidelines. I read guideline 4 very carefully before posting my last comment and put it in comparison to some of your responses to my comments and to comments of other contributors. I also did not take umbrage to anything here. I was merely voicing my opinion on something. As you said I did not tell you how real inquiry is done because that would incredibly presumptous of me and I simply do not work that way.

    From your biography I can see the seriousness of your endeavor here. I can see you need to fit most of your experiences into well constructed molds built from concepts and a given set of methodological markers. This all contrinutes to you furthering your pool of knowledge and understanding of a topic you have chosen to explore. Again, I think this is a project worthy of praise that will hopefully come to fruition for you. However, it will be definition turn away much of the debate and discussion you might be seeking by publishing a blog. This in no way makes the content of the blog less valid or less interesting. It does however make it somewhat of a closed loop and a bit of a contradiction, if that is, discourse with others is what you were looking for.

    There is little room for discourse here due to the elements mentionned above. You may state you are just “one guy with his experiences and opinion on Korean culture” and by extension on cultural compatative discussion but the content of your blog speaks otherwise as do some of the follow up comments. This in time might lead to a molologue-like blog instead of a living arena of discourse and exchange of ideas. But, that is just my opinion on the matter. It will therefore depend on what you want to harvest from this online blog. The beauty of blogs in my experience is the incredible bounty of knowledge that can be garnered through living and fertile exhanges of ideas. For that to take place however, the forum must be open. Some of your blog reads far more like an academic acticle in the making (not a bad thing mind you as it makes for interesting reading if not for constructive and open discussion).

    Finally, I wish to say again that I wish you the best in your endeavors and in your research.



  13. January 15, 2009 8:01 am

    Dude! You said “after reading your rules for comments…” And there’s only one rule. So the fact that you make that word plural pretty much demonstrates that you’re mistaking guidelines for rules.

    Putting Guideline #4 into the context of comments you’ve read here will lead you to erroneous conclusions, because about half the text in the guidelines is anticipatory in nature.

    Anyway, if you don’t want to comment anymore, that’s your call. The reason I’m replying is so that the folks who read these comments will see that as long as they are nice in their comments, that’s really all I require. Get that folks? Just be nice.


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