When is Yes actually No?
Strange question, you think? Let me explain. I have written before about my family learning the Australian use of English (see related links below). Certain words and sounds are challenging.
One of the differences is the use of Yes and No when answering questions asked in the negative.
Here is a typical scenario. Costco quite often does not have Milo in stock. Don’t ask me why they don’t, they just don’t! Mr O went to Costco after work tonight to do the bulk item shopping. Milo was on the list, but I didn’t expect it to be available.
I was doing a local shopping trip for soccer shorts, shin guards and noodles. I figured I might need to add Milo to the list. As I was leaving, the conversation went like this.
“Love, Costco didn’t have Milo again, did they?”
So what exactly did Mr O mean by his “Yes”? He meant, “Yes, you are right, they did not have Milo.”
Yet in Australia, in that situation, we would answer “No”, as in “No, Costco did not have Milo”.
This different use of Yes and No became obvious to me when my family first came home. I would ask one of the kids, “You aren’t on dishes tonight, are you?” and they would say “Yes” when they are NOT doing the dishes. Actually, they still do. I have to be careful not to ask questions in the negative. I have to make sure I ask “Are you on dishes duty tonight?” then I know I will understand the Yes or No response! “You didn’t change your linen today, did you?” elicits a response of “Yes” when the linen was not changed. It can be confusing! Some situations lend themselves to this style of question: chasing kids to do things is one of those situations, as any parent knows!
I started thinking how this use of English could have caused all sorts of issues when Mr O was going through his asylum seeker days. Officials interviewing him could have ended up getting the completely incorrect response, depending how they asked the question. I do think in most situations, officials ask direct positive questions, but even so, clearly there is room for confusion there! I think back to the Living in an Abbott and Costello sketch article I wrote and now wonder how much of THAT particular confusion was potentially a result of exactly this different use of English!
I plead with anyone working with those from a different cultural background to make sure the person you are questioning is actually answering in the style you think they are, because they could be using Yes when they really mean No – or vice versa!
I haven’t even addressed the flip side of the coin! What if the person from another land asks us a question and we answer our way and that is misinterpreted? All over a simple “Yes” or “No”.