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I am having a little trouble understanding the nuance of でしょうか in comparison to ですか. People say it makes it more hesitant and polite, but that doesn't explain the nuance enough for me.

Why would you say あなたは「自分ってどんな人?」と聞かれたら、どのように答えるでしょうか. I don't understand what nuance でしょうか has - does it place the uncertainty on the listener like "how do you suppose you answer?" as opposed to "how do you answer?"

That's my guess, but I need to understand the nuance. If there is no difference in meaning between one and the other I will never alter them.

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3 Answers

でしょうか is not a polite version of ですか. If you want to see it as a politer form of some other phrase, it would be だろうか.

The three main usages of でしょうか are as follows:

  1. The speaker is asking the listener about something they're not really sure about. Typically, it's something that makes the speaker worried or something they're wondering about. A good example is 時間までに間に合うでしょうか。(Do you think we can make it?). You're wondering if you can make it in time like 間に合うだろうか. But the でしょうか version is not talking to yourself, which would be a more likely interpretation if it were だろうか. You're asking someone. It sounds polite just like how a question of the form "I am wondering if you could do it for me" in English sounds politer than "Can you do it for me?"

  2. It is a rhetorical question of some sort. Examples are 誰が僕を信じてくれるでしょうか (Who would believe me? = No one would believe me) and いつ私がそんなことを言いましたでしょうか (When did I say that? = I don't think I did). This is polite but has a negative connotation, such as the sense that the speaker disagrees with the listener. You could sound passive aggressive. In any case, you can see this as a politer version of だろうか as well. Note that as in the first usage, this is clearly directed to the listener, so it can be actually harsher than 〜だろうか as a rhetorical question even though it's technically a politer form; a rhetorical question with 〜だろうか can be said in a way you sound like you're talking to yourself (or wondering rhetorically, so to speak).

  3. Following 〜ではない, it expresses the sense that the speaker is suggesting that something might be true (i.e., making a guess and telling it to the listener). The connotation is that the speaker isn't confident about their guess. And they're being polite. An example is このままでは間に合わないのではないでしょうか (I'm worried if we can make it in time. Do you think we can?). You can use 〜ではないでしょうか when you're sure you're right too if you want to be extra polite about it.

So, some more context is necessary to understand/translate your example sentence. If it's just the speaker is asking something, it's the first usage. The speaker is kind of wondering, and being polite, too. But if the context is like the speaker is arguing with the listener and implying something along the line of "You would respond this way!", it would be the second rhetorical usage with a negative tone.

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I think the difference is similar to:

  • How will you respond? (corresponds to ですか)
  • How might you respond? (corresponds to でしょうか)

Using a hedge word like "might" or "でしょう" weakens the certainty of the statement or the certainty demanded in the question.

The effect of using hedge words in an interrogation helps the interviewee build some distance between his actual personal thoughts and feelings, and the response that he gives. This eases up the interviewee. Knowing that he does not have to commit entirely to his response, he is more likely to give a response.

On the hesitant and politeness issue, it is generally considered rude to directly ask about a person's personal opinions and thoughts when you are not on familiar terms. Using でしょう allows you to ask without sounding too demanding of a answer with absolute certainty.

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There's no real change in meaning - the choice of pattern depends on the situation, who you're speaking to, etc. There's a lot of ~でしょうか used with keigo (patterns like ~していただけないでしょうか).

If anything, it indicates uncertainty on the speakers side. Although in many cases this translation is clunky, you can think of it as similar to English phrases like: "I was wondering..." that get tagged onto the head of a sentence.

"I was wondering if you were available next week." has the same basic meaning as "Are you available next week?"; it just has a slightly softer feel to it.

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