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Politeness levels

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Politeness levels

Postby keatonatron » Thu 03.01.2007 11:30 am

I must admit, one of the most confusing parts of Japanese culture is the politeness levels (keigo). Speaking and understanding keigo is quite easy; it's knowing when to use what level with who that's difficult.

Recently I've been meeting a lot of people at concerts, most of them in their mid-20's. I always try to speak politely when I first meet them, because even though we're close to the same age, I don't know them at all so in theory I shouldn't act too friendly.

I've mentioned before the story of my friend who kept using polite speech with me simply because I was using it with him (and he wasn't sure if I would understand polite speech). Finally he flat out said "let's speak casually! We're friends already!". I told him that I was speaking politely because he's older than me. He replied "only by 2 years, that's not enough to make a difference".

And then a few nights ago, I got together with some other friends and again brought up the subject of polite speech. Perhaps 2 years isn't that big of a deal, but what about the people who are 7 or 10 years older than me? Shouldn't I speak formally to them? This time I was told "you only really have to speak formally to someone your parents' age or older. Anyone younger than that and plain form is fine in normal social situations."

That advice seemed to fit my assumptions at this point, but then something strange happened. I went to meet with a friend and his band; my friend and one of the members are the exact same age as me. The 3rd member may be a bit older, but only by one or two years. I figured everyone would speak informally, as they did with me, since they're all the same age and pretty good friends.

Surprisingly, they spoke formally to each other! It was quite confounding. Here people are telling me I can speak informally to anyone in their 20's, yet these guys who are the exact same age (and seem to be pretty good friends) speak formally to each other (while my friend speaks informally to me).

The first (and perhaps biggest) possibility is that everyone is being especially lenient to me because I'm a foreigner. When I was asking about polite speech, one guy blurted out "no one expects a foreigner to be able to understand polite speech, you don't have to worry about it." But that still doesn't explain why the band members would speak informally to each other. My guess is that there is a dominance order within the band, so they have to show respect to the stronger members, however it wasn't easy to tell who was the most dominant. Everyone spoke politely to everyone else, and I really couldn't figure it out :|
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby two_heads_talking » Thu 03.01.2007 12:02 pm

That about sums it up. I too found it confusing (still do honestly) So,I would always error on the side of using too much polite level or keigo. I suppose it is better to be too polite, than not polite enough.

I came to the same conclusion about leniency as well. the Japanese I would interact with would tell me that it wasn't necessary and that because of it's intricacies that I was not expected to know it, but I wanted to know it and the answers differed depending on who I spoke with.

salary men would always encourage polite speech, while college students would encourage some polite and some informal. Older folks would encourage keigo to your elders, but it never seemed that they could pinpoint where the "elders" started (in age) and where one could use informal speech.

the senpai/kohai relationship is strong in Japan, but sometimes, it is hard to figure out whether you are a senpai or a kohai. where age seems to be the main factor, I suppose you just go on age, but there are so many more nuances that even age isn't the only factor.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Thu 03.01.2007 12:19 pm

It's definitely a tough issue, particularly when you are a foreigner. You can't really trust most Japanese people to tell you accurately about keigo usage -- not because they're purposely trying to lie to you, but because foreigners still don't really fit into the "social order" as such, it's sometimes hard for them to know what sort of language to use when speaking to you.

That is kind of strange that people in the same band were using polite language with either other. It does seem like the sempai/kohai dynamic might be at work, but usually if that's the case the sempai doesn't have to speak politely (although of course the option is there). It's also surprising to hear that from a group of males.

I've pretty much given up on ever figuring out when it's OK to use 俺. Everyone seems to have a different opinion and I've come to the point where I just don't use it at all, no matter what situation.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby hiraikotsu » Mon 03.12.2007 5:49 am

keatonatron wrote:
My guess is that there is a dominance order within the band, so they have to show respect to the stronger members, however it wasn't easy to tell who was the most dominant. Everyone spoke politely to everyone else, and I really couldn't figure it out :|


My guess is that the younger one might be the stronger one (in terms of music experience). So everyone speaks to him formally, and (out of politeness?) he speaks to them in the same way.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Tajoumaru » Mon 03.19.2007 5:50 pm

I avoid "ore" altogether, unless I'm imitating someone. I use "boku" around familiar persons and "watashi" around unfamiliar persons, though I always used "watashi" in Japanese class. I also try avoiding 2nd person pronouns, because that's always been a source of trepidation for me. Generally I use basic polite (desu, -masu, etc.) speech regardless of whom I'm speaking with, whether it's my girlfriend, my girlfriend's mom, or a Japanese person I've just met (though I suppose with my girlfriend I use plain, direct speech some of the time). That's probably due to my first sensei, an older woman who led us to believe that the plain form is only used by social troglodytes, yakuza, and small children. A friend of ours, a 24-year-old Japanese woman, always uses ultra-formal speech in her e-mails. In person she speaks rather plainly, however.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby PandanoTake » Mon 03.19.2007 6:51 pm

Tajoumaru wrote:
I avoid "ore" altogether, unless I'm imitating someone. I use "boku" around familiar persons and "watashi" around unfamiliar persons, though I always used "watashi" in Japanese class. I also try avoiding 2nd person pronouns, because that's always been a source of trepidation for me. Generally I use basic polite (desu, -masu, etc.) speech regardless of whom I'm speaking with, whether it's my girlfriend, my girlfriend's mom, or a Japanese person I've just met (though I suppose with my girlfriend I use plain, direct speech some of the time). That's probably due to my first sensei, an older woman who led us to believe that the plain form is only used by social troglodytes, yakuza, and small children. A friend of ours, a 24-year-old Japanese woman, always uses ultra-formal speech in her e-mails. In person she speaks rather plainly, however.

When I went to Sapporo with the group from my school, this one boy always used ore. So it's funny that you should mention it here because my host sister, and best friend, Natsumi talked to me about it and how rude it was and all. I, myself, do the same as you in the way that I always use boku, but sometimes I do use watashi. With elders I use watashi/watakushi, depending on how well I know them.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby PlaceboZA » Tue 03.20.2007 8:37 am

This is the main reason I'm feeling quite a lot of fear at speaking to japanese people.
But as mentioned to me before, if you stick to ultra-polite until you're sure, you can't really go wrong. Or so I understand.

But really - they do know how to make their language intimidating :(
Thousands of kanji and levels of politeness that can give you a bloody nose..
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby keatonatron » Tue 03.20.2007 8:55 am

They also don't expect foreigners to understand any kanji or the complexities of polite speech--so take comfort in the knowledge that simply speaking Japanese at all will impress them.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Delekii » Tue 03.20.2007 9:16 am

One of my teachers at Uni here (a native English speaker who has been studying Japanese for a long time) relayed her own experience as going through stages.

Firstly, she could barely speak any Japanese, and everyone said her Japanese was wonderfully brilliant.

Then, she got a little better at Japanese, and everyone said her Japanese was OK, but corrected small mistakes.

Then, she got quite proficient with the language, and everyone told her she needed to speak more politely, and that she wasn't using the right language at the right times.

Then finally she got to a point where she was good enough that they were finally impressed with her again.

iI'm not looking forward to the middle two steps :(
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby two_heads_talking » Tue 03.20.2007 9:37 am

the middle two stages are where you are actually learning the "real" stuff.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby PsychoSP » Wed 03.21.2007 11:21 am

It would be nice to understand how things are "really" supposed to be, but I'm actually quite content with the leniency to foreigners. I don't think I'd enjoy being given a rank in their social system -- no doubt at the bottom. I think foreigners can be a catalyst for social interaction that would otherwise be rendered impossible by what almost resembles a caste system.

In Korea, they're more straightforward about social status. My wife was told the following by her Korean friend:

"Yeah, you're probably my best friend in the whole world, and you're only a few months younger than me, but I'm still one grade higher in school -- so you can't call my by my first name. Ever."

I'm sure Japan has similar rules for those anal enough to enforce them, but I'd rather remain ignorant.

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
I've pretty much given up on ever figuring out when it's OK to use 俺. Everyone seems to have a different opinion and I've come to the point where I just don't use it at all, no matter what situation.

Me too. I never use 俺.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Shirasagi » Wed 03.21.2007 3:09 pm

Politeness levels are like jazz. You have to learn the rules, the scales if you will, but in the end you just have to feel it. And it's very much something that just comes with time and experience.

I use おれ, when appropriate.
I use 僕, when appropriate.
I use 私, when appropriate.

When is it appropriate? Find a native speaker whose Japanese you admire (preferably one who often switches politeness levels depending on the situation). Watch what they do. When you watch dramas, pay attention to the kinds of characters. Japanese drama characters are often archetypes. They are meant to represent a certain personality or characteristic, and the are drawn in broad strokes to represent this. So, note their personality, the character they are supposed to represent, and note when they use the various terms. Don't look for specific instances; rather try to get the feel.

Example one: I go out with some English students after class. It's the first or second time. The men are a little younger than me and use "boku". The women are still using "desu". I'm using "boku".

Example two: I'm at a birthday party. I've socialized many times with everyone who's been invited, even if they aren't close friends. Some men are much younger than me, some are a couple years older. They are all using "ore". The women are all younger than me, but they aren't using "desu" towards me. A primarily "ore" situation.

Also, don't run before you can walk. Sometimes Japanese people will tell beginning Japanese students not to use おれ, not because they are using it wrong, or in the wrong context, but because the student hasn't developed the fluency wherein the おれ doesn't stand out. We can draw an analogy to "ain't", mentioned in another thread. Native speakers use "ain't" all the time, in various contexts. But if an English beginner tried using "ain't", even in the right context, they would almost surely get corrected. Colloquialisms need a certain flow to sound "right".
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Mukade » Wed 03.21.2007 11:48 pm

Well put Josh!

I especially like the jazz analogy. Lately, I haven't even put any thought into my own politeness levels. It's usually only after the encounter is over that it registers with me which level I used.

One other thing about polite forms - remember that it isn't necessary that every last verb and grammar element be put into polite form to be considered polite. It's possible, and sometimes even preferable, to mix some plain forms into your speech. As long as you end the sentence politely, it tends to be taken overall as polite (with the noticeable exception of pronouns).

Having every noun, verb and conjunction in polite form can often sound stilted and unnatural.

Hope that doesn't confuse the issue even more. :|
Last edited by Mukade on Wed 03.21.2007 11:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby Harisenbon » Thu 03.22.2007 2:32 am

Josh, that was the best way I:ve seen politeness levels in Japanese explained. =)

Mukade wrote:
It's possible, and sometimes even preferable, to mix some plain forms into your speech.


The biggest example of this is when people say something like

「ずっと、それはいいなぁーと思っております」
Mixing very casual with very formal in order to show respect, but still show the sincereity of what the speaker is saying.
(at least that's how I feel about it)
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RE: Politeness levels

Postby keatonatron » Thu 03.22.2007 8:38 am

I like using んです as a shortcut to weasel out of an informal statement.

If you forget to end the sentence formally, just add んです and *BAM* you can save yourself at the last second.

お、社長、こんにちは。あっ、課長は今いない・・・んです。昼休みをとりに行こうと言った・・・んです。
Last edited by keatonatron on Thu 03.22.2007 8:38 am, edited 1 time in total.
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