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I tweet in Japanese every once in awhile, sometimes to Japanese people and sometimes to all of my followers.

I haven't really been able to figure it out, so how does politeness work on Twitter? Some people tweet in 丁寧語{ていねいご}, others don't. Wouldn't it be rude to not use 丁寧語 when many of your followers could be older / socially higher?

Also, I've encountered this weird phenomena that when I tweet to someone in 丁寧語 they tend to respond without it, but if I tweet to someone with no 丁寧語 they tend to respond with it. Is this because I'm somehow establishing the respect hierarchy with my initial tweet in the conversation, or because I just really suck at this and always pick the wrong thing to use?

I'm aware there's not really an established rule for politeness on the internet, but if there are any guidelines or ideas I could keep in mind, that'd be pretty nice to hear.

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“when I tweet to someone in 丁寧語 they tend to respond without it, but if I tweet to someone with no 丁寧語 they tend to respond with it”: Interesting! Does this happen when you and the other person know each other personally, or when you do not know each other personally? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 24 '13 at 23:43
    
@TsuyoshiIto My sample is almost entirely compromised of people I don't know personally (I don't know very many Japanese people personally). The most interaction I've had with most is mutual following and maybe one or two tweets at each other in the past. –  Darius Jahandarie Feb 25 '13 at 0:02
    
I see. Thanks for the answer. I am not sure why that happens, though. To me, it seems more usual for both parties to use polite form in that situation. But I am not very familiar with Twitter. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 25 '13 at 0:09
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I would think that it is ultimately a matter of purpose and preference.

Twitter is, after all, a microblogging service. Just like how features of informal language (abbreviations, first-person pronouns, etc...) are expected even in English blogs, I would say that as far as I know, most Japanese people on Twitter tweet in plain form even if they have many followers.

Etiquette is linked to reputation and so naturally identifiable companies using Twitter as a means of broadcasting information (Sony and Nintendo for example) would normally use 丁寧語 to give a professional impression. This is different from adverts which have the purpose of drawing in the audience and so usually 丁寧語 is not a must since there are more interesting ways to do so.

For individual users, however, preference would probably play the bigger role. Blogging is like talking to yourself in public, and it's up to you to decide whether 'talking to yourself' (directed to no one in particular) or 'in public' (still visible to others) is more crucial. For Twitter, I would think that the former applies most of the time especially since there is a limit of 140 characters (丁寧語 is longer) and how, as a microblog, the point is to tweet what you think without worrying so much about what others think.

Internet and real life celebrities may have more to worry about with a larger audience, but it may be argued that the point of people following them on Twitter is to peek into their personal thoughts when they aren't making official announcements about their latest album, upcoming book, etc. and 丁寧語 may make it appear as if they are being (overly?) self-conscious. This may vary from person to person depending on age, gender, social status, etc. but I would say that there is usually no pressure to use 丁寧語 over plain form and vice versa.

when I tweet to someone in 丁寧語 they tend to respond without it, but if I tweet to someone with no 丁寧語 they tend to respond with it

For one-to-one conversations, it really depends on the relationship you wish to establish with the other party - casual and friendly (plain form) or formal and polite (丁寧語). In this case, the contrast could be to emphasise their preference in casual vs formal communication or, in the more unlikely case, deliberate differentiation/divergence (distancing themselves from you).

Personally I use plain form for normal tweeting while I would use 丁寧語 or 'slangy' 丁寧語 (as mentioned by user1205935) when tweeting someone for the first time or for one-off interactions, just to be safe and not sound rude. But if in their immediate reply or after interacting for some time it progresses to plain form, then it may be a sign to do as the Romans do.

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I cannot speak for Twitter, but I have had email exchanges with friends I know well and with whom I haven't used 丁寧語 for years. Still, in email (or Skype) correspondences the other party had always seemed to try to balance out my either being too formal or too informal. I took it to mean that I hadn't struck the right note for them.

So, for tweets(?) to a single person or a small group of people one partial solution might be to use "informal" 丁寧語, i.e. write spoken 丁寧語 with 語尾, contractions, etc. This may be preferable to 普通体, e.g.

めっちゃかんたんじゃないすか~ instead of
めちゃくちゃかんたんだよね

Although the first uses more slang, it also uses 丁寧語, which as far as I can tell, is felt to be less direct. (The staple for slangy 丁寧語 is です(よね), of course. It can go at the end of virtually any sentence.)

If it is obvious that you are addressing a large audience, I wouldn't worry so much about 丁寧語 (in the right context, of course). Many Japanese adverts use direct language, slang and just about anything they can lay their hands on. And still, the サラリーマン may be their target audience. I would even go as far as saying that many Japanese enjoy direct language, as long as they don't have to worry about whether it was culturally appropriate. These cultural concerns are just not applicable to, say, copy that is just copy and not a personal letter. I would guess that this also carries over to Twitter to some extent.

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