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Often times at the gym, when I'm on my way out, covered in sweat, one of the staff will say お疲{つか}れ様{さま}です ("you've worked hard"...?).

Usually at work situations, I've often found that saying some variant of お疲{つか}れ back makes sense, because we're usually in the same situation or we're finishing at the same time.

However, in this case, they're working and I'm a customer, so I'm never quite sure how to respond. Saying some variant of お疲れ back to them doesn't seem right, as they are still working.

I feel a little weird saying ありがとう (thanks) or something like that, because it seems to be acknowledging my own efforts ("why yes, I have worked hard!"), which doesn't seem quite right.

What would be the right response?

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Unfortunately, you have chosen the wrong answer as the best answer. A fairly common practice on here, though. –  非回答者 Nov 15 '13 at 6:33
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@TokyoNagoya, I didn't merely select it, the community has upvoted it higher than any other answer. If you think it is in error, provide an alternate answer, and if you're right, your answer will be validated by the community. If that happens, then I could switch the accepted answer. –  Dave M G Nov 15 '13 at 10:52

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

お疲れ様です has many meanings depending on the context and your divided feelings, I think, reflect Japanese people's own different usages. It is simultaneously a greeting and an acknowledgement of having put in hard work and being in a state of tiredness.

At work, お疲れ様です acknowledges each other's hard work and responding usually suggests "it's nothing, you've also worked hard." At your gym, お疲れ様です is more literally like "You must be tired," but is essentially just a greeting, like "How are you?" in English.

The correct response should be 「どうも」would suggest "Thank you for your thoughtfulness," rather than "I have worked hard!"

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Completely disagreed. By far the most-often used response by us native speakers in that particular situation would be the exact same phrase repeated, not どうも. –  非回答者 Nov 14 '13 at 22:11
    
Previously I too suggested どうも. But actually, as the commenter above said, there is no such thing. Either you repeat it, or you say nothing. –  syockit Aug 18 at 12:10

If you leave but they're still working, wouldn't "(お先に)失礼します" be appropriate? If it's quite informal, maybe you can just say something like "ああ。それでは、また明日!"

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At the bouldering gym I go to, when people leave they say お疲れ様です to which everyone replies お疲れ様です.

Axio7s response works as well.

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If you don't feel like saying something special you could just nod to him/her. They say that to everyone and don't usually expect any answer at all.

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