Saying "No" to Foreign Students
Gary Althen and Virginia Gross
NAFSA Newsletter, October, 1984
U.S. college and university staff members often experience frustration and even anger when they decline a foreign student's request and then find themselves subject to assorted forms of pleading, cajoling, threatening, or expressions of indignation. "How can you say 'no' to foreign students and make it stick?" staff members ask.
There will, no doubt, always be misunderstandings and divergent interests between foreign students and staff members. Students sometimes will want things the staff members are unable or unwilling to give. But saying "no" to foreign students need not always be an ordeal. Understanding some of the ideas and using some of the approaches in this article can help staff members work constructively with foreign students whose requests need to be denied.
We are assuming that the denials in question are legitimate ones--that is, that staff members would deny similar requests from any student, and not saying "no" to a foreign student simply because of the student's race or nationality. We are not by any means encouraging or condoning prejudicial treatment of students from abroad. We are, rather, describing some cultural factors that can make it difficult for Americans to say "no" to foreign students and have that "no" be accepted.
Like all of our behavior, what we do in our roles as college and university staff members is influenced by our cultural backgrounds. Most middle-class Americans, when thinking about a situation in which a college or university student wants something from a staff member, would make this set of assumptions: The staff member got his or her job on the basis of some evidence of competence--a certain performance on a test, a series of interviews, or a particular educational or occupational background. The staff member is responsible for a certain category of decisions, probably spelled out in a job description or an operations manual. Through training and supervision, the staff member has become an agent of the organization, daily carrying out its mission and goals. When the staff member gets a request from a student, the facts of the matter are ascertained and, on the basis of written or otherwise clearly understood guidelines, the staff member decides whether the request can be granted or whether it should be referred elsewhere. The student generally is expected to accept the staff member's decision.
Students from some other countries may not have been raised with these assumptions. They may assume that staff members got their jobs on the basis of personal connections, that they have no particular qualifications for doing their jobs, and that their main motive is to minimize the amount of effort they devote to the work, rather that to contribute in a dispassionate way to the smooth functioning of the organization.
Students from some countries may not have an adequate understanding of what Americans call the "rule of law"--the idea that governmental or organizational decisions are made on the basis of written laws, rules, or procedures, and not on the basis of personal connections, whims, or other seemingly arbitrary considerations. More specifically, foreign students are not likely to bring with them an understanding of the rules, procedures, and deadlines that govern the operations of American colleges and universities.
Thus, some foreign students whose requests are denied will not consider those denials final. They may suppose, as many of the have been taught to do, that they simply have not talked to the right person or asked in the right way or asked often enough. They will "naturally" ask again. They often have a strong faith that they will get a "yes" if they ask the right person in the right way. "No" means "maybe."
It is not only with respect to their assumptions about staff members' roles that foreign students and U.S. college and university staff members may differ. They also may have different ideas about the way "no" is conveyed. Americans typically say no in rather indirect ways, considering less ambiguous denials to be rude or insulting. They use everyday conversational tones to say "no": "I'm sorry, but I don't think that would be possible." "That would be against our usual policy." "I really don't think that could be done." Americans usually will understand that these statements mean "no." Taken literally, though, they could as well mean, "Probably not, but if you pursued it, maybe so." And students from many countries will pursue it, entering into a sort of negotiation with the staff member who tried to say "no," and perhaps with other staff members as well. Staff members usually feel uncomfortable while negotiating, and they sometimes make concessions they later wish they had not made. They wanted to say "no," and thought they had. Then they found themselves under pressure to change their minds. Resentment, frustration, and anger sometimes follow.
So far two ways have been presented in which culturally influenced assumptions and behavior can cause misunderstanding about a staff member's "no." Two other complications need attention.
First, as staff members who work regularly with them know very well, foreign students are subject to certain requirements and limitations American students do not face. U.S. immigration regulations, their own countries' currency exchange laws, contracts they have signed with sponsoring agencies, or the terms of their scholarships can restrict foreign students' choices. Foreign students know that U.S. college and university staff members who work mainly with U.S. students do not always understand these restrictions and their implications for documents or help foreign students might need from their schools. So the students will pursue their requests with a vigor that staff members might not understand.
Second, many foreign students believe, sometimes rightly so, that they are subject to discriminatory treatment by institutional staff members. They might think they get a "no" when a native would get a "yes." When they get a "no," they are, of course, less inclined to accept it.
What we have said so far is intended to help U.S. college and university staff members understand the viewpoints of foreign students who bring them requests that need to be denied. Understanding the students' viewpoints can help staff members say "no" effectively when necessary. Now for some specific suggestions about how to say "no" to foreign students.
Make the "no" clear and unambiguous. Say "no," or "that is not possible," or "I do not have the authority to do that." Sometimes it is necessary to say "no" more than once and in a louder volume than usual. An American might be insulted by this, but for a person who does not enter the situation with an American's assumptions, a loud, clear "no" serves the constructive purpose of making the answer unmistakable.
Say "no" with authority. A denial or negative response coming from someone who appears unsure or tentative is much more likely to be challenged, especially if the request is for something the student perceives as important. A staff member who obviously is familiar with the procedures or issues the student's request raises will seem more credible than one who does not seem to have a clear understanding of the student's request and its implications. A staff member who can draw comparisons with the governmental or educational system of the student's own country will seem even more credible.
Staff members who are uncertain whether "no" is the correct response will want to confer with colleagues before giving the denial. If one staff member says "no" and then another says "yes" or even "maybe," the student rightly believes that the request is not getting thorough attention from a knowledgeable person. The student probably will shop around for the most favorable decision.
Sometimes it is possible to anticipate the need to say "no," and say it before the question actually is asked. "Because you are registered for only eight hours, we cannot give you a letter saying you are a full-time student." "But we can give you a letter simply saying that you are a student here."
It usually is appropriate and helpful to explain fully why a negative response was given. This may entail an explanation of the institution's policy on a given point, or of the way "the system" works, or of the political factors involved in a decision (for example, why a public institution cannot devote millions of dollars to financial aid for students from other countries, or why a faculty member cannot arbitrarily change a grade). If a rational explanation for the "no" is not offered, or if the staff member saying "no" does not appear to be acting in a rational way, the student may suppose the staff member is being arbitrary or unfair. The student then is likely to take the question to another person who is perceived to be more fair or more "interested in students." Students deserve rational explanations for denials of their requests.
A staff member who becomes angry is not likely to be seen as rational. An explanation from an angry person is not likely to be accepted. Anger interferes with constructive discussion. Staff members who become angry with foreign students, and who realize that their anger does not help, will want to try to reduce or eliminate their anger. This is not the place for a detailed treatment of that topic, but conventional approaches are available to dealing with one's own anger. They include the counting-to-ten approach, arranging a cooling-off period by having the student come back at a later time, consciously separating one's response as a person from one's response as a staff member with a job to do, and critically examining what one is telling oneself about how the student should behave.
Another way to account for a "no" is to refer to the staff member's role in the situation: "I do not have the authority to issue the kind of statement you want." "I would like to be able to help you, but what you want is beyond what I am in a position to do. Let me explain what I can do, and what alternatives are available to you." "In a situation like this, I have to think about all the students here, not just about you. If I did what you are asking and other people found out about it, my ability to help other students would be reduced. I simply cannot do things that risk damaging my ability to help the students here, even if I wanted very much to do what you or any other student asked."
If there is an avenue for appealing the negative decision, the student should be told about it. The student should be told who can hear the appeal, if the appeal should be made in oral or written form, and what criteria will be applied in considering the appeal. "You can write a letter to the assistant dean. If you do that, you should make clear what you are asking and explain the background for your request. The assistant dean will consider your request and how it fits with the school's policy about issuing documents like the one you want."
It may be more difficult for a foreign student to accept a "no" from a female than from a male staff member, as many students come from places where females are not in a position to deny important requests. Female staff members can confront this problem openly: "You may not think someone who is a woman can make a decision about a matter like this. But I can. It is my job to make decisions about requests like yours. If you still have questions about why I cannot do what you ask, I will be happy to try to answer them. Or we can talk about what can be done in situations like yours."
Students sometimes will try to get the staff member to feel personally responsible for solving their problems--to "own" it, in other words. Staff members will want to avoid accepting ownership of students' problems. If the student is in financial difficulty, for instance, it is best kept clear that the student has the problem, not the staff member. The staff member will want to help and will do so if possible. It may not be possible to offer anything other than sympathy, though, and the student may be left with a problem. That happens. The staff member then might want to discuss possible ways of resolving the problem--transferring to a less expensive school, borrowing money from a distant relative, or even leaving school.
It may be useful, when saying "no," to show students the written policy or set of requirements that is at issue, and ask the students to explain how they stand vis-à-vis the policy or requirements: "Here are the regulations for getting permission from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to work off-campus. It doesn't look to me as though you meet them. Can you convince me that you do?" "Here is the reference book about your country's educational system. The placement guidelines in this book were written by U.S. educators and foreign credential evaluators who got opinions from educators in your country. These experts recommended against giving transfer credit for the type of coursework you have taken. Can you explain why you believe academic credit should be granted in spite of these recommendations?" This places the burden on the student, where it belongs.
Many foreign students have the idea, probably based on considerable experience, that they can get what they want from an institutional official by mere persistence--asking and asking until the official gives in. If indeed the answer to the student's request ought to be "no," then the staff member ought not to "yes" just to avoid seeing that same student yet again about that same request. The staff member might say such things as, "We have already discussed this. Unless you have some new information for me, there is no point in discussing it again." "I will not discuss this anymore unless you have some new information about the situation. If you do, please write it down for me and I will decide whether it seems reasonable to talk about it again."
U.S. students do not always accept "no's" without complaint or protest. They may get loud, make threats of certain kinds, or offer "stories" that are intended to evoke sympathy. But these ways of seeking reconsideration, like the ways in which their request are made initially, are usually carried out in a culturally-approved manner. To the staff member, they seem "natural." Staff members will want to understand how different cultural backgrounds make different things seem natural to different people. They will want to realize how their way of conveying "no" might be perceived by foreign students. Then they will be better able to get their "no's" accepted.