When I was in elementary school, a certain comma was the bane of my existence. No, not the serial comma. I learned (and later unlearned) that one relatively easily. It wasn’t the comma before “too,” either. Nor was it the one between multiple adjectives modifying a single noun. No, it was the comma in “no, thank you.” The role that comma plays, the way set phrases are spoken and understood, and the disconnect caused by a phrase of refusal that incorporates a word of affirmation and acceptance is mirrored in the Japanese word ii (良い, いい) and its polite alternatives, yoroshii (宜しい, よろしい) and kekkō (結構, けっこう).
Perhaps I was uncomfortable with “no, thank you” because the phrase sounds more like “nothankyou.” We utter set phrases so often and so quickly they seem to merge into a single word — such as “thanksalot” and “howzitgoin.” This is especially true for “nothankyou,” since we attach it to the end of a conversation in order to exit a situation — for example, to leave a convenience store or supermarket unburdened by a receipt. We shouldn’t feel bad, though. This is, after all, the goal of set phrases: We use them to expedite the process of relaying certain information.
In “no, thank you,” we relay politely the fact that we are refusing goods or services offered by another party. While the comma confused me, it also provided the solution — it sets off the answer (“Nay! I need not the extra calories in those supersize fries”) from the polite softening of the phrase (“but thank you for the offer”). If you pause for a moment on the comma, the meaning becomes more obvious. And the longer you pause, the more polite it becomes. Standard level of politeness: “nothankyou.” More polite: “No, thank you.” Polite and very considerate: “No (a beat), thank you.” You have to be careful not to take this to the next level of “sarcastic politeness”: “No (adjusts monocle and puts on top hat), thank you.”
Japanese, too, contains polite refusals that sometimes confuse students. When teachers introduce the word ii, they often give the quick, three-word definition: good, fine, nice. Like “thank you,” these are positive words. Teachers fail to mention, at least initially, that “fine” really means “fine without.” The real definition of “fine” in the phrase “ii desu” (「いいです」, “I’m fine”) is “I’m fine (in the state I’m in [often with the absence of certain services or goods offered]).” Or “I’m fine, I don’t need the receipt. Keep it please. No, thank you.”
This fact becomes more readily apparent if you’ve ever heard someone say or shout “mō ii!” (「もういい！」, “Enough already!”) Using “mō ii” less assertively is an acceptable way to refuse something offered, especially if you add “desu.” “Kēki wo mō sukoshi tabemasu ka?” (「ケーキをもう少し食べますか？」, “Would you like more cake?”) “Mō ii desu.” (“No, thank you.”)
“Kekkō desu” is the polite alternative to “ii desu,” but the long vowel at the end, along with the long consonant “k,” makes pronunciation trickier. If you use this phrase and find that people double-check what you’ve said with “Ii desu ka?” you might try to stick to a straightforward “ii desu” and hold your palm out in front of you — the universal symbol for stop.
When you are asking the questions, do not use “kekkō” — use “yoroshii,” instead. In this case, the order of politeness of these questions, running from the shortest (least) to the longest (most), is: “Ii desu ka?” “Yoroshii desu ka?” “Yoroshii deshō ka?” These questions are flexible and incredibly useful. First, you can use them to confirm that someone is “fine (with the current situation/without something).” A useful English equivalent is, “Are you sure?” These questions are also a sincere way to express appreciation for someone’s kindness. Say, for example, a ramen shop owner offers you free gyoza with your ramen. An acceptable way to express thanks without using “arigatō gozaimasu” would be to confirm this miraculous event with “ii” (“Ee? Hontō ni ii desuka?” “What? Really? Are you sure?”) and then give thanks with a sing-song “itadakimasu!”
While “ii” is an adjective meaning good or nice, it’s important to remember that it is incorporated in many set phrases such as “no, thank you” that can quickly express that something is decidedly not good. When I was an English teacher, I had an array of stickers that I would give to students. Boys loved insect stickers. When I offered one to a girl in the class with “Mushi wa ikaga desu ka?” (“Would you like a bug?”), she would match my level of politeness and reply, “Mushi wa ii desu.” No, she wasn’t saying bugs were good. She was implying she was fine, thank you, without any bugs. Learning the subtle uses of ii can, it appears, even make a handy fly swatter.