3 Ways to Say No in Costa Rica Without Actually Saying “No”

How do you say no in Costa Rica? Well, it’s not “no” because that is considered outright rude. Instead of saying “no,” you have to get creative and come up with different excuses to get out of the situation. I like to think of it as a game.

costa rica language, yes = no

“Yes,” also known as “No” in Costa Rica

1. Passing the Buck

With this method, you say “no” by referring the question to someone else. It’s the easiest way to say “no,” but if you are on the receiving end, this method can get pretty tricky and waste a ton of your time depending on how far you take it.

Take for example my recent adventure in which I snuck on to the tennis court at a country club. A week before I snuck in, the swimming instructor told me that I could probably use the courts without joining and that I needed to talk with the tennis instructor to set something up.

If I had asked the tennis instructor for permission, he probably would have told me “Yes, you can use the courts when they are available,” which means “No.” If I had taken it a step further and called to use the courts, I bet one of these three things would have happened: 1. The secretary would not know who I was and therefore would not have allowed me to schedule the court. 2. The secretary would definitely know who I was and the courts would always be busy. 3. The secretary would schedule a court for me and when I showed up, she would ask for my membership card or number. Game over.

2. Misinformation

With this method, you just flat out lie. I most often see this when asking for directions.

“Excuse me, do you know where the ICE office is?”

“Yes! It’s 500 meters south and 200 meters west.” Translation: “no.”

The only way to figure out if the person really knows the directions or not is to follow the directions and see where they take you. Because of this, I have a little rule in which I ask three people for the directions before I follow them. If all three say the same thing, then I know they are correct.

costa rica directions

“Excuse me Mr. Cowboy Sir, Do you know how to get to the ICE office?” “Yes. It’s over there.”

I’ve also seen this method used in the workplace.

“Are we getting paid on Friday?”


… on Friday, “Where are the paychecks?”

“Oh they are not here because there is traffic,” which brings me to the third method:

3. Making Excuses

Traffic is the #1 excuse for all things and people being late or absent. Late for work? Traffic. Late for school? Traffic. Turning in a project late? Traffic. No food in the cafeteria? Traffic. Not going to a friend’s party? Traffic.

“I’m sick” or “someone in my family is sick (or dying)” is another popular excuse.

I actually use this method all the time at intersections. There is always someone trying to sell something and they will get upset or persist… or both, if I say “No.” Solution – make an excuse.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.”

“I already have sunglasses.”

“Ohhh I’m sorry, I just bought one of those coloring books this morning at another intersection.”

costa rica sunglasses at intersection

“I’m sorry. I already have every color in my collection!”

I’m a direct person and really appreciate other people being direct. So how do I deal with everyone being so indirect all the time? I focus on the positivity of almost never having to hear the word “No.” It’s nice. I also get some great laughs at some of the amazingly creative ways people have come up with for saying “no!”

That being said, I still hear “no,” usually in downtown San José. Which is also where the intersection salesmen sometimes get aggressive and call BS on my excuses not to buy their stuff.

How about you? What has your experience been? Have you heard any other methods for saying “no” in Costa Rica?



  1. says

    The one about getting directions is so true, even in Panama we noticed that. You have to understand that their intentions are good, they don’t want to disappoint you.

    In negotiations, if you notice the conversation is no longer making progress and tangential topics are creeping in, then the answer is also “no”.

  2. says

    Folllowing your third method, the no I most often get is “Okay, I’ll get right on it”. I can never understand if I’m just being blown of or if the intention really is to try but it just can’t happen.

    • Erin Morris says

      Yeah, that’s a tricky one. I hear that a lot in restaurants. “ok I will bring that right to you,” as they saunter off to chat with friends and text for 30 minutes before coming back with mayonnaise packets. It’s the pura vida!! :)

    • Erin Morris says

      haha :)
      That reminds me of “se me olvido,” at least I think that’s right? It means basically “it made me forget” …”it” being the traffic of course

  3. Brian says

    oh man… glad I read this… so its a cultural ‘thing’ that people may give you misinformation or blow you off. I’ll have to make note of the various instances this ‘no’ thing occurs for our upcoming travels.

    • Erin Morris says

      If you stick to the touristy locations you might not notice it that much. Just remember that no one is trying to be rude. They think it’s nicer to not say no, so they are actually being nice in their own way.

      • Brian says

        Cool.. just thought I’d mention it case it wasn’t already known.

        Anyhow… learning my spanish… I’ve now come to a point where I’m curious about actual methods to say things.

        For instance, lets say… at a restaurant I wanted the rice with chicken, do I simply say:
        Queiro arroz con pollo, por favor
        Or is there a better way to say it? Cuz to me it sounds like I’m demanding it even though I say please as opposed to requesting it. Such as ‘May I have the rice with chicken’ or ‘I would like the rice with chicken, please’
        Or am I thinking too much into this and simply saying I want it please will be more than sufficient?

        • Erin Morris says

          ok first of all, they will understand you if you say “Quiero arroz con pollo, por favor.”
          Now you need to make a decision: How is your pronunciation? If that needs work, then focus on pronouncing that phrase better. If your pronunciation is fine, then you can focus on different phrases:
          I would like rice with chicken = “Quisiera arroz con pollo.” This is used in a lot of Spanish-speaking countries, but not really in Costa Rica. I used to say it when I first moved here, and they understood, but then I learned the real way to ask for things in Costa Rica: Gift to me rice with chicken please. “Regalame arroz con pollo por fa.” :)

          • Brian says

            Awesome.. thanks for the info. I can pronounce it ok… however I find my french influences my pronunciations a little at times. ‘Regàlame arroz con pollo por fa’ is pretty simple enough to pronounce… i take it ‘por fa’ is as ‘thanks’ is to ‘thank you’

            Gift to me… reminds me of eastern euro friends that would say ‘borrow me this or that’ instead of lend me or can I borrow.

            Well back to my espanol learning and work…

  4. says

    LMAO, this is a great post! One thing I do when asking for directions is to ask a police officer. They’re the least likely to lie to you and the most likely to know where everything is. They haven’t let me down yet. I’ve even had a few “police escort” experiences with this method.

    • Erin Morris says

      Interesting tactic. I never even considered asking a cop, which makes me realize I’m still harboring a general mistrust of policeman after watching them rough up my friends in high school time and time again. <– true story :(
      I'll have to try it next time. I want a police escort to ICE :)

  5. Vane says

    First of all, love this blog. Great stuff, and the design is very pleasing. I just wanted to reply to a couple of comments here, as a native Spanish and English speaker. Also, I can relate to this whole issue because I live in France, and although the French (definitely!) have no problem saying no, they will not admit to not knowing something and so instead give BS answers or use your method #1, pass the buck.

    ‘No sabria decirle’ is pretty clear, there’s nothing evasive about it. It means ‘I don’t know’. ‘Se me olvido’ means ‘I forgot’. Yes, in Spanish, it’s like we assign the blame to the object (e.g. se me cayo, ‘it fell from me’ instead of ‘I dropped it’) but don’t take these usages so literally. Again, no evasion there. Those two expressions are clear ‘no’ statements.

    • Erin Morris says

      Thanks for the comment!
      The Ticos I hang out with joke about saying “Se me olvido.” They like pointing out the fact that they even pass the buck when they forgot something, when it’s obviously their fault. I think you are right – it definitely means I forgot, but the literal translation is amusing and telling of a culture. I’m curious about how many other Spanish speaking countries say the phrase “Se me olvido”
      …it’s kinda like literal translations of some Southern US sayings. For example: fixin’ to. “Are you fixin’ to come over?” means “are you coming over?” but literally would mean “are you preparing to come over” implying the expectation is not that they would arrive soon, which fits the laid back southern culture in which we would most likely show up late.

  6. Surabhi says

    You write very well Erin !!

    You know, day before yesterday, I was talking to my neighbors (Husband-Wife) outside my house, so I thought its better if I just invite them to my house for a cup of Tea…So the husband said “I dont take hot beverages” when I kind of insisted them, he said ” though i dont take it, my wife can have it ” and they came to my house…Was that a “NO” ?…..Your article made me think again!! :( :(

    • Erin Morris says

      I don’t know if that was a no or not, I think it depends on the situation/language barriers/etc…

  7. pedro says

    I like to try to beat them to the punch, so like right before they ask me to buy something I’ll ask them to buy something from me or for some spare change, then it is them that has to come up with an excuse to not buy and not you. You should keep some old junk in your car to try to sell to the intersection vendors. I guess another way to get out of saying no, would be to ask them if they know any jokes, which would stall them long enough hopefully for the traffic to start moving…

  8. says

    You have so much more patience than I! Even in Canada, the pan handlers can get pretty aggressive. My best defence has always been utterly ignoring them. Pretending I didn’t hear or see them.

    I worked near Portage and Main in Winnipeg where I had been accosted by many a pan handler. Walking briskly and ignoring the person getting in your face was the only way I successfully managed to get from A to B every day by city bus.

    In Costa Rica (in 1997), I didn’t notice aggressive street vendors. Granted I spent only a few days in San Jose, and we most certainly saw street vendors, I never felt threatened or like I had to convince anyone that I would not buy from them. Perhaps it was that we traveled in a fairly large group at the time. I don’t know.

    Yet I’m the kind of gal that doesn’t do well with anything that doesn’t get right to the point, quickly. I’m far more likely to say no within a few words regardless of whether it’s in person or over the phone. I just don’t have the patience for salespeople. Though I definitely give a good one props when I come across one lol.

    I can totally relate to how one would have to adapt to the culture of wherever you were living (or visiting). Even in Canada, it is sometimes quite a shock to grow up in BC (not small town BC either) then live in Toronto for 12 years. My first few years here was quite eye-opening culture wise.

    • Erin Morris says

      I didn’t always have patience. I learned most of it here in Costa Rica! Now I think maybe I have too much patience haha

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