Why is Japanese Polite Speech So Hard?

March 22nd, 2007

I have no idea.

That is, I don’t think it’s so hard, but just looking around me, I’m surrounded by people who can’t speak politely. Not people who won’t , mind you (that’s a universal constant), but people who want to but can’t.

Basically, Japanese has 3 politeness levels: friendly, polite, and formal. Friendly is what you use with friends, kids, wives, husbands, etc. Polite is what you use with pretty much everyone else. And formal is what you use with customers, bosses, and other people you’re deferring to.

Now, formal is broken up basically into two parts: expressions you use for yourself, and expressions you use for customers. So you’ve got “いただく”, which means “eat” when you’re talking about yourself, or “召し上がる” which means “eat” when you’re talking about your customer eating.

Ok, that seems tough, right? But the thing is, friendly and polite forms are used every day by everyone over the age of 5. So you can discount them immediately; nobody sucks at using them. It would be like sucking at chewing, or sucking at tying your shoes.

So what’s left is learning how to speak politely about customers, and learning how to speak politely about yourself when talking to customers.

Sure, there’s a learning hurdle there. But it isn’t huge. If you work with customers daily, you should be able to pick it up, and well, after a few weeks or months.

And yet the people I work with, for the most part, are horrible at it. I, at least, have an excuse (or two): I’m not Japanese. And I seldom talk to Japanese customers. But these folks talk to them every day!

My guess is that it comes from a relatively recent (last two or three years) push inside my company to eliminate errors, in general. No more mistakes in emails. No more accidentally calling the wrong person. All noble goals.

But the result is that the people I work with have become pathologically worried about making mistakes, second guessing themselves whenever they say anything, leaving them a stammering mess that’s normally reserved for sitcoms (“Yes, sir, could you please, no, I mean, I would be pleased, no, wait, it would please be for, uh, I would be being pleased, uh, if you would please me to, uh…).

This fear of making mistakes resulting in linguistic inability is starting to drive me crazy.

For example, the other day I asked someone how to say “legal department” in Japanese (as in “we can’t release the report until it’s been looked over by the legal department”). This wasn’t for use in a formal document or anything that a customer would ever see. It was just for me to explain something to a colleague in an email. I explained that I didn’t need the exact correct expression, just something that communicated the idea of “a department in a company with lawyers or other people who know about the law, who look over contracts and the like, and do other law-related stuff for the company”. It could be wildly incorrect, as long as it communicated. My guess was “法務部” or something along those lines.

The person I asked had no idea. He asked his colleague, and the two proceeded to spend a good 5 or 10 minutes trying to come up with some expression that communicated “legal department”. Seriously. 5 or 10 minutes. And they came up with nothing. They were so fixated with finding the exact perfectly correct expression, despite me repeatedly explaining that it was just for an email to another person inside our company, that it just had to communicate, not be perfect. Nonetheless, they couldn’t come up with a single possible expression in Japanese that communicated “legal department”.

We hear on the news, and from older folks, that the young have no idea how to use polite Japanese, and that it’s due to slipping educational standards, moral standards, and the like. Personally, I’m thinking “hogwash”. Companies have just made folks so scared of being incorrect that they panic and draw a blank.

Somewhat unrelated, but something that has been bugging me about how folks use polite Japanese: Folks in fast food have taken to asking a completely ridiculous question, due to using their polite Japanese incorrectly.”Would you like that for here?” translates, in polite Japanese, to “こちらでお召し上がりでしょうか?” (literally, “Will you eat that here?”). Now people are dropping the こちらで, saying just “お召し上がりでしょうか?”. Which means “Will you eat that?”Well, yes. I’m in a fast food place, ordering food. What the hell else do they think I’m going to do with it?

3 Responses to “Why is Japanese Polite Speech So Hard?”

  1. Victor Says:

    Hmmmm, I think you maybe overestimate the intelligence of people. Brains are very strongly designed with a use it or loose-it retention policy, so if you aren`t speaking keigo you will forget it.

    What I really dislike about the very-polite Japanese is how fucking stilted it feels. Like walking around in an over-starched shirt put on over a corset.

    Normal japanese has this wonderful flowing rythm to it. Keigo is just… ugh…

  2. DFChan Says:

    LOL, “Will you eat that?”

  3. Jake Says:

    I can speak regular Japanese fine, but I sometimes try to speak keigo
    to some of my japanese-speaking friends, and I might as well have been speaking german.

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