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Nyak is more than saying No

What is nyak?

Nyak is a cultural construct prevalent in many parts of Bhutan, especially in eastern and central Bhutan. It is never easy to describe for many things go with this. It is a subtle act of refusing when someone offers us something to eat or drink. Our first reaction (as our norm would have it) is to impulsively refuse and say ‘no, no, it is okay, I just had something', etc., even though we may not have eaten anything at all. However, having lived in such a cultural milieu, the host or the person who makes the offer immediately understands that we are shy or modest and immediately assume that we are engaged in nyak. It would prompt the host to make several attempts to get a clear answer if our refusal was honest. If we want to accept the offer, after several proposals, we would then say, “Well, if you insist, I will try it.” Nevertheless, the frequency would be much more if, for instance, you are a stranger visiting the village. The possible reason may be that the visitor would feel uncomfortable.

The degree of nyak may vary from people to people and places to places. But in some western districts in Bhutan, people do not believe or engage in nyak culture. Likewise, both the offeror and the offeree understand these subtilities to either accept or refuse immediately. I gradually understood that there is a thin line between absolute refusal and nyak, and I can imagine how challenging it can be for an outsider to draw the line.

Actions and reactions
Schwartz (2008) sees culture as a collection of ‘meanings, beliefs, practices, norms and values’ common amongst the community members, while cultural values usually justify those accepted beliefs, practices and norms. The cultural values are ‘shared conceptions’ or ‘cultural ideals’ that sanction what is acceptable or even desired in a particular culture (p. 174). Nyak is in our blood. It is a cultural value that we have grown up with and something that refuses to go away immediately. 

Likewise, for Yang (2014), culture is 'a system of shared belief, value and behaviour' and includes tangible aspects such as 'activity used by the members…to deal with [the] surrounding ... world' (p. 655). I think nyak is a direct outcome of ‘shared values’ and are visible aspects of our cultures. In this sense, such shared beliefs, norms and practices are ‘handed down from generation to generation through … daily life’ and include various displays of people’s behaviours, their thought process, the products, the technology and the techniques employed to create the cultural products (Yang, 2014).

The cultural values guide a person's attitudes and behaviour and are, therefore, responsible for their relationships with others. Thus, these values guide all individuals' thinking (Schiefer, 2013). However, according to Schwartz (2008), dominant cultures are likely to look down ‘…because prevailing cultural value orientations represent ideals, aspects of culture that are incompatible’ with theirs ‘are likely to generate tension … criticism and pressure to change (p. 174). Such pressure is widespread in many societies. Many who have never stepped their feet out of their cultural comfort zones are likely to view others’ through their cultural lenses. Moreover, '…countries are rarely homogenous societies with a unified culture' and expecting all to behave and act homogeneously is wrong without paying attention to ‘subgroups’ (Schwartz, 2008, p. 189). The same is true of those who consider nyak needs to change and conform to the mainstream values.

Studies show that though immigrants are exposed to different cultural values – that of their host country and their own – values of their home countries have a more significant influence on their attitudes (Schiefer, 2013). 

The inside from outside 
Yes, in our culture, accepting an offer in the first instance is often considered awkward. For instance, only a drunkard accepts alcohol that he is offered in the first instance. Engaging in nyak is one way of being polite and avoiding the likelihood of being seen as greedy. Someone who is ever ready to accept everything that they are offered unabashedly is even seen as outrageous. We can change places or live in different places in different countries, but our original values continue to stick with us and guide our thinking process (Schiefer, 2013). Moreover, even if we change it, it is a gradual process.

Similar behavioural patterns are observed in Chinese people. For instance, Shen et al. (2011) find that the Chinese are likely to refuse small gifts from less familiar people. The study claims that it is mainly because (due to their cultural values) he believes in reciprocity that if he receives something from someone now, he will need to reciprocate the stranger in future. However, the North Americans, who possess a different set of cultural values, do not believe in such notions and are likely to accept them. The exhibition of nyak behaviour is slightly different from the above account because in offering something to eat or drink, there lies no expectation of reciprocity and offering is made genuinely from the heart.

Nyak is a subtle behaviour that can be easily misinterpreted and judged for being ‘vague’, naïve and often complicated. However, cultural theorists believe that people are the direct product of their cultural values and upbringing. Changing and adapting readily to a whole new set of beliefs can be challenging and gradual, if at all. Nevertheless, today, people are far more transient that one must possess the appropriate cultural skills and toolkit to respect the other and appreciate them for what each stands for. 

(This is a shortened version of the essay that I had to write for my class - posting it here to light up this space) 

Blasco, M., Feldt, L. E., & Jakobsen, M. (2012). If only cultural chameleons could fly too.     
            International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 12(2), 229-245.  

Schiefer, D. (2013). Cultural Values and Group-Related Attitudes. Journal of Cross-Cultural 
           Psychology, 44(2), 245-262. 

Schwartz, S. H. (1999). A Theory of Cultural Values and Some Implications for Work. Applied 
           Psychology: An International Review, 48(1), 23-47. 

Schwartz, S. H. (2008). A Theory of Cultural Value Orientations Explication and Applications. In 
           New Frontiers in Comparative Sociology (pp. 173-220). ProQuest Ebook Central. 

Shen, H., Wan, F., & Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2011). Cross-cultural differences in the refusal to accept a 
          small gift: the differential influence of reciprocity norms on Asians and North Americans. J     
          Pers Soc Psychol, 100(2), 271-281. 

Yang, L. (2014). Comparison of Chinese and Westerners’ Communication Pattern International 
        Conference on Education, Language, Art and Intercultural Communication 


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