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Polite and Informal Speech -- when to REALLY use them

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Polite and Informal Speech -- when to REALLY use them

Postby sampaguita » Fri 03.28.2008 1:03 pm

I read that you should use polite speech when talking to people you don't know. But I've watched a lot of Japanese dramas, and plain speech is almost ALWAYS used, except when talking to customers, etc. A few years back, when I went to Japan, a salesman kept on using plain speech to me ("Eigo no manual ga arimasu ka?" "Nai.").

So, if I want to speak Japanese like a native speaker, when should I use plain speech and when should I use polite speech?

Thanks in advance.
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Re: Polite and Informal Speech -- when to REALLY use them

Postby two_heads_talking » Fri 03.28.2008 2:40 pm

a good rule of thumb. Always error on the side of caution. In otherwords best to be thought of as too polite than a rude punk.
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Re: Polite and Informal Speech -- when to REALLY use them

Postby Shirasagi » Fri 03.28.2008 2:51 pm

sampaguita wrote:I read that you should use polite speech when talking to people you don't know. But I've watched a lot of Japanese dramas, and plain speech is almost ALWAYS used, except when talking to customers, etc.


Really? Because I've watched my fair share of Japanese dramas, and I've noticed that polite speech is pretty much used like you'd expect. And of course, a primary feature of dramas is that the people know each other, so they're not going to use pure polite speech.

A few years back, when I went to Japan, a salesman kept on using plain speech to me ("Eigo no manual ga arimasu ka?" "Nai.").


An ojisan, perhaps? There are a number of possibilities: a) he was just a rude guy, b) when speaking to foreigners he uses the absolutely simplest Japanese he knows, on the assumption that they can't handle anything more complex, c) a combination of the two, d) he's gotten old enough that he doesn't give a crap about social niceties, e) other.

A) Comes up more often than you'd think, and it's not unusual to see d) either. Just the other week, I was getting a ride from an acquaintance in his 60s. Suddenly not sure if we were on the right road, he pulled over and asked another older fellow:

T-san: Tsurumai-eki wa doko ka na?
Ojiisan: Massugu, Hidari.
T-san: Arigato!

And off we went. The relative age of the speakers and the situation dictated that all the polite niceties were really unnecessary. And it wasn't rude at all.

So, if I want to speak Japanese like a native speaker, when should I use plain speech and when should I use polite speech?

Thanks in advance.


The first thing to understand is that there are no hard and fast rules, and politeness operates on a spectrum. For many people you talk to, there will probably be a mix of polite and plain speech. Some general guidlines, though:

Bosses, teachers, and other people of obviously higher status than you: Polite speech, all the time. Avoid contractions.
Older Co-workers: Polite speech, with some casual features after you get to know them.
Younger Co-workers: Polite speech, with some casual and plain features after you get to know them.
Children: Plain speech.
Koibito: Plain speech.
Older friends: Polite speech, or plain speech with some polite features.
Younger friends: Plain speech.
Strangers: Polite speech, if you want to be a decent person with a good upbringing.

You'll have to develop the right feel on your own, and it may involve making a few mistakes. I agree with two-heads-talking: err on the side of caution.
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