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Sometimes a Japanese person will say to me:

そんなに丁寧な言葉を使わなくてもいいんですよ。

This is an invitation to be less formal. But how much less formal? As I have experienced, sometimes unintentional gaffes can be committed blithely as one learns to navigate the treacherous waters of the politeness hierarchy. Note that the expression itself uses です even though it is a request to use less formal speech, and that is the level of politeness I would normally be using. So I find the whole matter confusing. The eternal politeness dance ...

Now, here's the catch: I feel it would be rude to ask something like "What level of politeness do you suggest I use?" That might come off as sarcastic or, worse, a rebuke. Any advice?

Edit to add more detail

An example of this kind of occurrence: At a lunch after a business meeting, I was using standard TV keigo: desu, -masu, plus o- and go- where appropriate, plus a bit of nasaimasu and itashimasu to senior people. The gentleman seated across from me (on about the same level as me), said this rather matter-of-factly. Honestly, I really wish he hadn't said this. It was like saying "Don't worry about the snakes, just stick your hand in there."

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Note that formality and politeness are not the same thing, although they often go together. Formality is the formation of your words (using です/〜ます forms vs. plain forms) and politeness is the content of what you're saying. Also, you might want to reformat the post, because I'm not really sure what you're asking. If other people don't either, it might get closed. –  istrasci Aug 3 '11 at 15:08
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This is highly contextual and difficult to answer as it is. Who were you talking with? Where? How politely/formally were you speaking when this comment came up? –  Derek Schaab Aug 3 '11 at 15:26
    
@Derek: At a lunch after a business meeting. I was using standard TV keigo: -desu, -masu, plus o- and go- where appropriate, plus a bit of nasaimasu and itashimasu to senior people. –  Robusto Aug 3 '11 at 15:32
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What is "standard TV keigo"? –  user458 Aug 3 '11 at 16:57
    
@sawa: I think Robusto is referring to the normal use of teineigo you would find on your average variety show. –  Derek Schaab Aug 3 '11 at 17:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

As others have said, this is a really hard question to answer because it is always so context-dependent. This is the sort of thing that Japanese people themselves struggle with, to an extent, especially when people from different generations or backgrounds (Tokyo vs Osaka etc.) are speaking with each other. All those "introduction to keigo" books in the bookstore aren't just there for light reading.

Here's an analogy: You grow up playing classical piano. In your 20s, you get into jazz. Your fundamentals and technique are fine, but you don't yet have your own sound. One day, you're at a jam session playing standards. A saxophone player who also part-owns the place comes over to you in a break and says, "You know, you don't have to play so in all the time." How do you change your playing style?

Your options are pretty similar as a language learner and a musician:

  • Listen. Pay close attention to how others around you talk, both on your side and the other side, higher status and lower status, very familiar to each other and recently introduced. If you hear differences than you think you can adopt...
  • Experiment. Take it one step at a time: Try dialing back some of the less common honorific and humble forms first, especially if others on your side and in your position are too.
  • Observe. People probably won't react in immediate, visually obvious ways unless you do something really bad. But they might react in more subtle ways, by engaging with what you say more deeply, and asking you more direct questions -- or the opposite.
  • Woodshed. Practice as much as you can. If you haven't got a tutor or anything, or friends/family who'll let you practice on them, buy books and do the exercises. There are good books and bad books, but even a bad book should give you a better idea of how to make fine-grained changes. And...
  • Find a mentor. If you can enlist someone in your company to help you out, great. If they are your supervisor, even better! Ask them after the meeting how you went. (Ask them questions like this!) Copy what they do. You'll find your own style eventually.

And one final meta-point: Be aware that sometimes people don't say exactly what they mean. Some people really do want to speak more casually (I have seen, in a business context, Customer A specifically ask if Supplier B wouldn't mind using "san" rather than "sama", and I believe they meant it). Others think they do but don't like the results. Others may want to speak very casually at lunch but very formally in the meeting room. It all comes down to observation and experience.

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Thanks. And speaking as a musician myself, I wish I could give you an extra upvote for the music analogy. –  Robusto Aug 4 '11 at 13:13

Matt's answer is a good practical approach for learning how to deal with this issue, but I thought it might be helpful to offer a suggestion about why this is happening to you.

I attended a lecture at Temple University on this very topic, and the professor giving the lecture had the theory that not only are politeness and closeness inversely correlated, but also that perception of your Japanese ability was matched to how familiar you are with casual forms of speech.

Those of us learning Japanese are often beaten over the head with the premise that Japan is a society that holds politeness, formality, and ritual in high regard, and so we must conform not only to grammatical rules, but also to strictly defined behaviours. There is, of course, some truths in that.

However, I fear a lot of the time we Japanese learners over compensate by staying polite and/or formal for fear of making a small verbal mistake that will result in everyone in a thirty yard radius committing ritual suicide.

What a Japanese person is trying to tell you by being "less polite" is not that the rules for polite ritual interaction are different from what you thought.

The Japanese person is trying to tell you that you can relax and take on a more friendly tone, as your politeness makes you sound like you're keeping a distance.

It's also an encouragement, because (according to the aforementioned professor's theory) it means they believe you might be holding onto a textbook approach even though your Japanese is good enough to support more natural conversation.

As a result, asking how polite you should be defeats the purpose because the question itself asserts to your listeners that you do not know them well enough to ease into the right mode. If someone asked me in English "Hey man, how rude can I be to you?" I'm not sure how I would answer, but I would know that the person asking doesn't seem to know me.

The key is to let go of your worry that there is a rule book that has a diagram covering each kind of personal and business relationship and what level of formality and politeness to use. And I say that knowing full well there are keigo manuals and books for Japanese learners that make it seem like there are. Those are guides to start the uninitiated.

More importantly, there is no snake pit. In general I think we have to dispell this notion that Japanese are fragile and will shatter at impoliteness. Trust them that they have a feel for the language that is good enough that they can detect that you tried and missed, and did not mean a genuine offense.

It's an art, not a science, and you will be able to roll with it if you go by feel. In English, you know when to say "Excuse me, would you mind terribly if I ask you the time?" and "Dude, what time is it?" The ability to make such distinctions in Japanese, and in fine gradients, comes with experience.

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Thanks and +1. This is also good advice, and much of it has crossed my mind in an inchoate state from time to time, but it is good to hear someone else articulate it so well. –  Robusto Aug 4 '11 at 13:11

"Sometimes?" This happens to you often? Sounds like you are forgetting to slack off the polite form after a while to show familiarity. Ease into that 俺とお前の関係. But if someone is your superior at work, I think you should keep it going.

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