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Recently I was in Japan and stayed at a certain hotel for a few days. I was surprised to see the level of customer service that I received. There were many cultural differences that surprised me, but the one thing I wasn't sure how to react was to all the お帰りなさいませ I received when I got back to the hotel.

I was born in Japan, but living in America for the majority of my life, I'm used to replying when someone says something to me. My mom told me that it's very uncommon for people to reply in such situations but I could not stop my habits. I thought about what would be a good thing to say since ただいま would be strange, as the hotel is not my home. So I came up with お疲れ様です。 as my reply.

Does that sound strange and if so are there better phrases I could've used in that situation? Or should I have just kept my mouth shut and said nothing at all?

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ただいま doesn't sound strange to me. But I'd probably just do a nod/half-bow. –  istrasci Nov 14 '13 at 0:07
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

You do not need to say anything nor are you even expected to in that kind of situation. Many, if not all, Japanese indeed do not. I myself usually just nod or bow lightly at the clerk without a word or nod while saying どうも without enunciating it.

Saying ただいま sounds strange to me unless you reside in the hotel and you know the clerk very well. お疲れ様です may be said by some if not by me, and I cannot actively recommend that you say it. Again, you can say it with no problem if you know the clerk personally.

In a ryokan, however, a whole different set of customs are followed, in that a far greater amount of conversation takes place between the staff and guests. I will not get into that here, though.

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I'm not sure I completely understand your question. You know it is "very uncommon" to reply, but you are looking for a common way to reply? Given that there's nothing that really fits, anything goes: こんばんは, ただいま, お疲れ様です, ご苦労様です (maybe even ありがとうございます) are all equally awkward, but probably equally acceptable from someone with a social attitude evidently different from the Japanese norm. All these replies imply, though, that you took the greeting personal and reply in a personal way. The greeting, as you know, was only intended as a formal greeting.

どうも is probably the only formal acknowledgement you can utter, without seeming to misinterpret お帰りなさいませ as a personal greeting. That said, most Japanese would not even say this.

Even in English-speaking culture, you would not reply to a "Welcome to our hotel" by saying "Thank you so much, how are you?". That would suggest that you thought the hotel clerk is welcoming you personally. (Rather a formal "Thank you" would suffice.)

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