Deciding Between Polite or Casual Japanese in a Conversation

Politeness. Manners. Casualness. Friendly. The Japanese language is split into seemingly infinite versions depending on who is talking to who, where, why, what, when, and how. Your goal is to learn all these versions so you can hold yourself out as an upright member of the Japanese speaking world.

Deciding Between Polite or Casual Japanese in a Conversation

You know it isn’t going to be easy but you have the basic rules down:

Strangers: polite
Friends: casual
Elders : polite
Children: casual
People older than you: polite
People younger than you: casual
Co-workers on your level: casual
Co-workers below your level: casual
Co-workers above your level: polite
Customers: polite
First meet someone: polite

And the list goes on with more rules and exceptions than you could go through in a lifetime.

So you try to do what any Japanese person would do.

Learn through experience.

Every conversation you have with a different person in a different situation, you are picking up the minor subtleties. Even Japanese people sometimes have to gauge a situation before they know what to use.

And then comes the ultimate and most unfair obstacle:

You are a foreigner and Japanese decide to ignore all the norms they grew up with when they talk with you.

When a Japanese person speaks with a foreigner in Japanese, they enter “language confusion mode,” and it results in some of the following:

Children of all ages speak casually with you, regardless of your age/status.

Co-workers of all levels speak casually with you.

People older than you speak politely with you (because they assume most foreigners only can understand polite Japanese since that’s what they usually learn first)

And more. Mixing and matching polite and casual Japanese in the most unfashionable manner possible.

You have one option:

Ignore it, and learn your polite-casual divide by observing Japanese-Japanese interactions. Then speak polite-casual Japanese based on those observations. If other people are speaking improperly to you, that’s their problem, not yours.

There is hope:

The deeper and stronger relationships you build with specific Japanese people with your fluent Japanese ability, the more likely they are to exit language confusion mode and speak to you in proper politeness mode.

Have you had experience with this struggle? Or have you found Japanese use polite-casual with you like they would anyone else?



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.

Comments

Deciding Between Polite or Casual Japanese in a Conversation — 18 Comments

  1. I’ve had experiences of this sort, yes. I have one Japanese friend who is very strict about his manners so, since I’m older than him, he speaks to me in polite Japanese. The only reason I don’t tell him that it’s okay to speak to me casually is because he gives me good listening practice as to how to speak politely. :P

    Otherwise, like you said, elders will speak to me in polite Jpn while people closer to my age and even younger might use casual Jpn. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken with children so I don’t recall what they’ve used with me.

    An additional factor that you haven’t mentioned is speaking in a group. For example, I met a group of Japanese business here in the US and I was ready to speak to them in polite Japanese since they were both a few years older and strangers. But my (also American) friend started speaking only in casual Jpn so that automatically changed the speaking nature of the group.

    What I like to do when I’m speaking to new people in that sort of situation is that I’ll actually apologize in advance for not speaking in 丁寧語 or for slipping out of 丁寧語 and into more casual speak. That way they can still see that I can speak Jpn fluently but that maybe it’s been a while since I’ve used that manner of speaking since I’m usually only speaking Jpn with good friends. I find that people are very receptive to that apology and many will often humble themselves and say that they aren’t the best themselves so it becomes a great way to put on a relaxing veil over the conversation.

    • I’ve also experienced the group dynamic (especially when foreigners are involved) affecting the politeness level of a conversation. Another deep layer!

  2. Yup. I know people (non-Japanese native speakers) who speak casually with their Japanese mother-in-laws yet I speak formally with mine, despite the fact that we have an extremely close relationship. But I think you’re supposed to speak formally with a mother-in-law regardless, right? So I am absolutely confused there, but it’s totally fine. I’m not so much bothered by this if my mother-in-law isn’t, and I’m showing her respect as well.

    Almost every Japanese person I become friends with that doesn’t have children of their own (so kind of in the same social status) (whether online or in person) will tell me to speak casually with them after seeing that I’ve been using formal speech with them. I have no idea whether its appropriate or not in Japanese culture, as they’ll still speak formally with my husband. From what I’ve heard, it’s hard to know when to use casual and formal for Japanese people too, so it must be easy just to draw the line for non-native Japanese speakers as well. I like this, because I can get closer to them through speaking casually. This isn’t always the case, but I’ve had so many Japanese people tell me to speak casually with them.

    I’d like to learn what’s natural. I think it’ll be easier to learn once I’m in Japan and can observe it more.

    • One thing I’ve noticed is that some people just speak a certain way habitually. That is based on their personality and upbringing they will speak more politely even far beyond the norm or conversely they will speak casually far beyond what’s actually acceptable. I saw a super hilarious case of this on TV recently when this gyaru single mom was in front of other single moms giving some kind of seminar. She said right up front she wasn’t very good at speaking properly and that sentence was pretty much the only attempt she made the whole show.

      Also, and I think this tends to happen in English as well, is that people will occasionally clean up their speech if the group composition changes. The most obvious example I can think of is if you are in a peer student group and your professor comes over. Guys might not change as much but most girls will switch to desu/masu even if they weren’t doing that seconds before.

      Finally there seems to be special rules for nomikai. The level of everyone’s speech seems to fall off a cliff after a single drink.

      Originally I was going to add a bit about my experiences speaking to my family, but honestly the gender differences make my comments completely irrelevant to you. My brother-in-law’s fiancee speaks pretty casually when we are all talking at dinner but of course will add desu/masu when addressing his parents. The rest of us are close enough in age that casual speech seems normal and appropriate so there’s nothing that strange there.

      • You are definitely right, and there are Japanese people who against the politeness norms.

        As for nomikai, I’ve been to a few company ones, and I’ve seen the boss figure tell everyone to “throw away keigo” for the night so everyone can be at ease.

  3. Ah, reminds me of the time I told the immigration lady in Japan who came on the bus headed to the airport
    “おっ、今お父さんが持ってんっすよ、俺のパスポートを。ほら、其処に座ってるよ”

    True story.

  4. I’m Zimbabwean and recently shocked my japanese computers teacher by introducing my self in japanese, polite japanese too.

    Anyway, in my mother tongue, shona ( Zimbabwe’s main native tongue ), the emphasis of polite speach vs casual speach mirrors japanese so closely, that the polite speach vs native speach speach thing felt second nature to me…..

    They are almost identical, I can give examples if anyone is curious.

    • That is very interesting. Is there any cultural or historical reason behind the connection or is it just a coincidence?

      Sure, let’s see a few politeness level comparisons with Zimbabwe’s language (a language most people are not familiar with!)

  5. My native language is Spanish and thankfully it has some sort of polite language so it is a bit easier to understand when learning Keigo. I’m from the Dominican Republic and our Spanish has conjugations for elders/strangers/first meeting. I don’t use Spanish as much and I don’t consider myself fluent anymore but when I speak to my grandmother or any elders or to strangers (shop owner, bank tellers, etc) I speak more politely. It seems unnatural, rude even, to speak to them casually.

  6. Why can’t I tell off little kids who talk to me like that? Not meanly of course. But they need to learn to respect their elders.

    • For the most part they mean no harm, and just don’t know how they should react to speaking with a foreigner in Japanese.

  7. What I was actually searching for was a little guide to just speak casually but found this site. It´s not that speaking politely is that difficult but many Japanese don´t use the polite forms as much as we think they do. Most books or courses teach us that Japanese different levels of politeness are so very difficult but in fact this is what foreigners think. All languages I know have some forms of politeness. Sometimes they´re used often, sometimes not.
    But putting that fact aside, speaking (not being) polite is a thing that depends on your character. I´m Dutch and in the Netherlands you often use casual forms because it makes your conversation partner feel treated more familiar and friendly. In many jobs you can even talk casual to your boss because this makes the working climate relaxed and enjoyable. Being polite and showing people respect is something that consists in how you behave. Not only where I´m from.
    My own experience is, that if you learn someones language and put time and heart´s blood in it, he won´t think about you talking in polite forms or not. You show your interest in his life and culture by learning his language and if you behave like a respectful and friendly person, he will notice that you are treating him with respect, spoken politely or casual.
    All in all just keep asking questions if you feel insecure but don´t worry too much. Show your conversation partner that you are willing to learn. As long as you show your interest and willingness, you may make mistakes as lot as necessary until you get it right. And in the end everyone understands a smile. I never met someone who did not understand a warmhearted and friendly smile.
    With this in mind, keep smiling, act polite, don´t worry too much about grammar :)

    • I agree that politeness isn’t the beast that some people make it out to be. It’s not so much that the ultra polite forms are hard in themselves, but it’s more that you don’t get to see them used as much, giving you less exposure and practice with them.

      This is why when even Japanese join the work force, it takes a little time to get used to all the special 謙譲語 and 尊敬語 they’ve never used before in their normal lives.

      You are also right, it is nothing to stress over, in the earlier stages especially. 丁寧語 works in most situations, and the above is really only necessary if you want to work in a Japanese work environment.

  8. The only think that distinguish formal from informal speech in my language would be the lack of swearing. I once considered learning Japanese but this, along with the strange grammar put me off. Not the characters though. Chinese is so much more logical to my mind than Japanese.

    • Agreed, there are a few things like nin vs ni (polite vs impolite you) you can say when greeting others for the first time, but other than that, I don’t see much difference in polite vs impolite speech in Chinese.

      I might even venture to say that Chinese is more similar to English in that people will try to go casual as quickly as possible, like asking where in China you came from (lao xiang), in order to establish a connection with you.

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