When you jump on a plane and fly off to another country and culture you are not only shifting locations but may be coming into a new set of cultural expectations and meanings - one of those expectations has to do with what is polite and what is appropriate in hospitality.
I went to Amman to study Arabic in a small private institute on Jabel Amman, Jordan in the early 1980's. Every day we would come to "class" and practice our verbs, horrendous pronunciation, spelling and dialog. Arabic is such a wonderful, broad, and expressive language - much more fluid and expressive than English. As with the written and spoken language, however, so also goes the non-written language of culture and shared meanings to some degree, as it too is broad, expressive and expansive.
Most of the time we foreigners in the class would come with stories or experiences that were new or different and the teachers would patiently explain the meaning and cultural perspective on the observed behavior. But sometimes our teachers would tell their own stories and experiences as they interacted with their foreign students - and the learning would take place on both sides.
One of my teachers relayed the following story:
I decided to visit the family of one of my American students. I chose to walk up a long set of stairs on Jabel Ashrafiya that ended near their house. It was a warm day and I arrived at their house feeling a bit tired, but very thirsty.
I entered their house and the wife asked me if I would like some refreshment, of course, as is our custom, I "no thank you." But she being American thought I was not actually thirsty or needing refreshment and said, "Ok" and sat down to visit with me. I kept waiting for the next invitation for refreshment but it never came. In our traditional Arab culture a host offers refreshment (coffee, juice, tea, water) when a guest arrives for at least three times and it is polite for the guest to refuse the offer, at which point the host will insist. After a few times back and forth, the host succeeds and the guest politely receives refreshment - everyone is blessed by this exchange, the host in showing hospitality in their home and meeting any and every need of the guest, and the guest in being served and blessed in the home of the host.
My teacher did not get a second offer on that visit and soon learned that when visiting American homes that when offered a drink or refreshment to answer with a yes and receive the refreshment. When the families had been in Amman and Jordan long enough they would come to know and understand the beauty and gracious gifts in the non-verbal give and take of Arab hospitality and adapt. It is a dance of giving and taking that lets everyone feel blessed at the end of the exchange.
And so in this context, "NO" can mean a polite, "yes, please" but only if you know the "secret" language of the cultural you are visiting or studying. Learning the many little parts of a culture, its secret languages, habits and joys, lets everyone enjoy the unique way that different peoples say, "please, thank you, or your welcome." Small things that build large bridges between peoples.
Do you have a story where you learned something about another peoples' "secret language" of culture or hospitality?