How to say nicely no, we can't bring a parcel back into Australia?
December 28, 2013 4:35 AM   Subscribe

We're staying at an Airbnb in Malaysia and the host has asked us if we could bring a small present back to Australia with us, for a friend of hers who also lives in Australia. There is no way in the world I am doing this. I am 99.9 percent certain that it is just Chinese New Year decorations as the host says, but I really have no way of knowing for sure and have no ambitions whatsoever to find out that it is something prohibited or illegal from a customs officer on arrival in Australia. How can I say phrase my refusal so that she doesn't loose face?

Other info: The host has been extremely friendly and helpful and has great reviews. It won't help if we see it unwrapped - I'm not comfortable taking anything I haven't purchased myself through customs. We can't say there's no room in our luggage as apparently it's tiny. I know I can just say 'no' outright and I don't owe her an explanation. I'm looking for a script to make a graceful refusal.
posted by t0astie to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think even with the extra cross-cultural issues, the traditional "I'm sorry, that won't be possible" is the best answer. Say it with a sad smile, and don't follow up with any excuse. Move straight into talking about something pleasant, or offering something like a cup of tea, or something like that so that it is clear you are not offended to have been asked.
posted by lollusc at 5:06 AM on December 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you want to do her a favour, you could follow your "that won't be possible" with, "but I'd be happy to bring it to the post office for you when I go into town tomorrow".
posted by lollusc at 5:08 AM on December 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

Alternatively, if you're sure you won't see your host again: you could
1. Take it to the post office yourself (with tour host's name & address as shipper, of course)
2. "Forget" to stuff it in your luggage (leave it behind in a drawer or something); or
3. Pack it, but toss it in a trash can as soon as you're out of your host's sight.

All of which sounds pretty passive-aggressive, but yeah: don't carry stuff when you aren't 100% positive of the contents.
posted by easily confused at 5:47 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be honest and just tell them that you aren't comfortable taking anything thru customs that isn't yours. If you want you can leave it at that or say that it is because of airline restrictions/regulations.
posted by wildflower at 5:49 AM on December 28, 2013 [13 favorites]

Tell them that you share a name with a person on the no fly list and that you're already flagged for extra attention. Having a package that is not yours will only increase that attention.
posted by ericthegardener at 6:03 AM on December 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just say no, and suggest they ask the next guest, instead.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:29 AM on December 28, 2013

Tell her you are happy to assist her in locating the post office person in Malaysia and in making sure it has the right address and postage. Or DHL, which is excellent for international shipping. But have her return address it and pay for it.

Shipping small packages should not be unduly difficult or expensive. If you think expense is a problem for your hostess and recieved good service or feel bad for denying her request, tip her well for the room and housekeeping skills to assuage your guilt. But don't take the package.

Remember the whole Bali 9 thing?
posted by slateyness at 6:31 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's not really a good way to refuse, because this sort of informal courier arrangement is the norm in many Asian cultures. Definitely don't accept if if you're not going to carry it. One strategy I've seen is to claim that you have a blanket policy against X, which sadly you must enforce even in this very convenient, very reasonable case, in order to establish the precedent for your crazy relatives/friends/parents who would otherwise ask you to do something much more inconvenient.

If it helps at all, your refusal won't make your host lose face. She's making a reasonable request. Your refusal only makes you seem ungrateful, and you should probably do something nice for her before you leave (e.g., pay postage for this package, or leave a tip) to make up for it.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:37 AM on December 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Er, to be clear, I'm not saying that you're being ungrateful, only that in this particular social situation that's the way the norms work. I think it's perfectly understandable that you wouldn't want to carry a package for a near-stranger, and I think she would understand too.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:38 AM on December 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

What's the item? You could say anything organic or food related will not be allowed, due to Australia's strict custom laws. (Which isn't a lie). Or you could take it, throw it away and then say that customs confiscated it because they found it in violation.

Often I use the, "oh Australia is very strict, they don't allow that wooden bookmark/cake/whatever in," which is more or less true-- Customs is pretty strict here. Then I just blame the import laws, and roll my eyes a lot and say it's terrible, I know, but they would confiscate it anyway and you would risk to lose the item and this one time, my friend had a similar thing and they lost $1000 worth of food/souvenirs/and a beautiful traditional drum!

All of these aren't technically lies, just half truths. Sometimes I say to mail it, because mailing those kind of items means they can irradiate the package and make it safe. (Kind of true too, one of my packages from my friend in the US got irradiated, I think because it leaked slightly, either way, it came in with a flyer explaining that it had been irradiated).

As for saving face, either way, it's going to be tough. People get defensive about being owed favors, even if they act like they don't want a favor anyway-- they will still hold it against you that you didn't bring it. Nothing to be done about that except to try not to worry about it. Sure, the package is probably fine, but what if it's not? The risk is too high. Don't feel guilty.
posted by Dimes at 7:54 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

No script to suggest, but please do not agree to take the package and then throw it away. Your host could've spent a lot of time and money purchasing something for her friend, or maybe it is a priceless family heirloom. Even if it was an inexpensive decoration, the same principle applies- it would be very unkind if you (generic you) agreed to take this item and then threw it away at the first opportunity. Either agree to take the package with you or decline completely.
posted by lovelygirl at 8:09 AM on December 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

I've traveled extensively in Asia, and a key part of "saving face" is not to be physically in front of them when you're 'offending' them. So:

Give it to a 3rd Malaysian party (neighbor, friend, store keeper), and request them to return it to your hosts - after you've left.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:14 AM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Mail it at the Malaysian airport to the address, with her address as the return address, write off the postage amount which should be less than $10 if it's a tiny package from Malaysia to Australia, as a regular airmail package, as a tip. This is the kind of thing people do all the time informally, but it is absolutely fine for you to refuse to take it, but not wish to upset your host or have to explain cultural differences.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:24 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Give it to a 3rd Malaysian party (neighbor, friend, store keeper), and request them to return it to your hosts - after you've left.

You might save face this way, but I think you'll lose respect for yourself. Whatever you do, be direct.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 9:28 AM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Passive behavior is a negative in Western culture - it is absolutely not the case in large parts of Asia, where passive communication is a perfectly acceptable and often desired method in inter-personal relations. Being direct is often negatively received, and can be seen as humiliation.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:46 AM on December 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "I'm so sorry, but Australian customs prohibit bringing in a package received from someone else, and they're very strict about this. I'm going into town today and I'd be happy to mail it for you at the post office."
posted by sunflower16 at 10:16 AM on December 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm shocked at the suggestions to take it and throw it away. That's petty and vicious. Why would anyone do that? Jeez.

How big is the package? Say that you don't have room in your luggage. Even if they don't believe that's true, they'll get the hint and drop it.
posted by redlines at 10:49 AM on December 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would say that you have tried to do this for international friends before, but each time the airlines made you remove any stuff that wasn't specifically "yours" from your bags before they would accept them for check-in (it's a lie, but a face-saving one).

Say that you'd hate to see their stuff end up just thrown away by the airline people...

...but that you'd be happy to pay the postage
(not post yourself* (this part is, of course, unsaid))
for him/her to send it to their friend in Australia.

(*I'm assuming that if you're hesitant about couriering it, you'd be equally hesitant in sending it yourself with the packages "From" label saying "t0astie")

Also, yeah, if it's anything food-related like a Chinese New Year cake, it would probably never survive customs anyway.

P.S. - in response to a suggestion above: Do Not simply take it, saying you'll do it, and then just throw it away. That's a bold-faced lie, cowardly, and an absolutely horrible way to repay the person who opened their home to you.
posted by blueberry at 12:05 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Say exactly what you said here: "I'm not comfortable taking anything I haven't purchased myself through customs." This is good enough. You do not have to lie about how much room there is in your luggage, or about anything else. You're simply not comfortable doing it. Anybody who would think less of you for this is not worth twisting yourself into knots for. The only way you can be sure your needs will not cause any consternation is to completely discount them and acquiesce to her request. I do not recommend this.
posted by Wordwoman at 12:33 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Honesty is the best policy. Just politely decline, citing concerns about the item potentially going missing due to situations out of your control (luggage searches, etc.). This isn't a face-loss scenario for her -- she runs a business (the airbnb), which while it has a more personal touch since it's a residence, is still essentially a business transaction. Don't mistake her niceness for something more personal than it is -- it's her being a good businesswoman.

She knows you aren't a local, and will have different customs than hers, including how and when you say "no" to requests. Just be polite and to the point, pleasant tone of voice, no scrunched-up apologetic face or hand-flapping. It's fine. She's tougher than you think. ;-)
posted by nacho fries at 12:50 PM on December 28, 2013

P.S. - in response to a suggestion above: Do Not simply take it, saying you'll do it, and then just throw it away. That's a bold-faced lie, cowardly, and an absolutely horrible way to repay the person who opened their home to you.

"I know that there are Australians on death row for this sort of thing, but can you smuggle this wrapped package of God-knows-what through customs for me"? I'd toss it in the garbage too.

Airbnb isn't a charity. You paid the hosts- they didn't "open their home" any more than does a hotel.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:32 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Others have covered the cultural aspect. I'll add also as Malaysians, we're too adept sometimes at bringing stuff in despite customs regulations. Otoh a lot of Malaysians, having friends and family in Australia, are well aware of the reputation Australian customs have about stuff. Tell her that you can't bring it because of the 'customs, you must have heard how they are.' If she doesn't know, tell her that customs have been known to x-ray luggages, that's why a lot of Malaysians find their moon cake etc have been confiscated for example.

Explain you're afraid you won't be able to explain the package well enough to avoid confiscation. I like the suggestion to offer posting and delivery ideas. Be firm and a little 'western clueless'. If you rather, offer your host that you will post this when you go to town. Third party messages MIGHT work in this case if you happen to know a personal relation or acquaintance of the host or else it will still be taken badly.
posted by cendawanita at 4:35 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can understand the reluctance to post it - firstly, Malaysian postal services are abysmal. Also, if the item would get held up at Customs/quarantine, the post won't work anyway - it'd just get sent back.

I wonder if it's possible to find out what the item is, because that would make a difference as to whether posting it is a viable option.

And gah, no, don't throw the thing away!
posted by divabat at 5:10 PM on December 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We're in KLCC and there's no reason she couldn't post it herself here, and with a lot more ease than I could do it for her, but if postage here is terrible that sheds some light in why she would want someone to fly it to Australia. It is supposedly Chinese New Year decorations. Honestly, Australian customs scares me witless and I wouldn't take a bookmark I hadn't purchased myself back for someone. I think I will just have to say I'm so so sorry but (truthfully) customs is terrifying and I can't take anything, no matter how small or reasonable, back. She has lived in Australia though so presumably already knows? Thinking might also offer to pick up some decorations in Oz and post to her friend? Or say not to worry about buying her friend anything but that I can pick some decorations up today and post when we get back? She really has been lovely and I would like to help, but can't do so by taking something she has purchased. Interaction will be via Airbnb messaging not face to face and we're going home tonight.
posted by t0astie at 6:05 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: And no, of course I'm not throwing it away!
posted by t0astie at 6:06 PM on December 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

From my experience living in Asia (not Malaysia though), I'm backing up the idea of being "direct" as not being a very good idea. Here if you have to deliver bad news, it is often done via a third party. If you have contact details of someone who can pass the message on to the host?

Its good that the communication will be via electronic messaging as in my experience that already takes some of the sting out of bad news.

One common excuse here is "bags are already overloaded" even for a 250 gram packet of dried mango.
posted by Admira at 8:14 PM on January 1, 2014

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