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I've always had trouble choosing which first person pronoun to use - 私 (watashi), 僕 (boku), or 俺 (おれ). What kind of factors should I keep in mind when choosing between these? Is it common to vary one's choice by the social context, or do people tend to select one and stick with it all the time?

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Are you male or female? –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 21:16
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@Wahnfrieden good that someone thought to ask that! The only woman I ever met who used 俺 was an aging hostess with a voice like gravel too many late nights of whiskey and karaoke. –  Ali May 31 '11 at 21:26
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@Ali - WHERE IS THAT, I MUST GO –  makdad Jun 1 '11 at 0:26
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

It depends a lot on the situation. I try to keep it simple and only use three most practical forms of the pronoun:

僕 (boku) :: I use it whenever I am not at work

俺 (ore) :: Almost never use 俺 unless most people around me are already using 俺, too informal.

私 (watashi) :: What I always use at work. Never ever use boku at work, or in an email, since somebody could consider that you are being rude and not too formal. (Happened to me a couple of times when I was a new graduate at a Japanese company).

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+1 for an answer from someone with practical experience with this question! –  Amanda S May 31 '11 at 21:52
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+1 great answer. That said, I do use 僕 with coworkers. You've just got to find your groove, whatever works for you :) –  makdad Jun 1 '11 at 0:26
    
(Re-read your comment - I probably got away with 僕 because I was at a gaishi, not a Japanese company) –  makdad Jun 2 '11 at 12:49
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@Wallqs, 僕 in the workplace is dependent on your position. All of the executive level staff (Managers up), including Myself all use 僕 when talking to our juniors. –  Jeremy Jun 10 '11 at 12:18
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  • 私- canonical, formal form.
  • わたくし more formal and stiff than わたし
  • 僕- most for young men, but older men sometimes use it (it still has the young man feeling to it) as well as some middle schoolish girls (still has young man feeling... Just imagine the middle school girls you know)
  • 俺- use if you're a guy, and only among friends or when you feel like not being polite.
  • 俺様- overly dramatic egotist. Listen to some dragonball Z and you'll find it.
  • わし- old people, male and female. The stereotype is that as they get older men and women start to sound the same.
  • 拙者- for samurais. Listen to some conversations in Rurouni Kenshin to hear this one.
  • (なし)- in many cases, the best option is to simply leave out the "I", implied and unsaid.
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In general... use "私"... it's what the japanese usually expect from foreigners. Switch to "僕" if you're male, and none of your male social-equals have used anything except 僕 for a few conversations. Stay away from using the others until you can ask for the ins and outs of this question to a native speaker, in japanese. –  jkerian May 31 '11 at 21:27
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Because わたし and わたくし are two different pronunciations of the same kanji 私 (and they are different in formality as you said), if you discuss the difference between the two, it is better to write them in hiragana. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 2 '11 at 2:06
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For samurai, don't forget 不肖 (ふしょう) and 某 (それがし). –  istrasci Jun 2 '11 at 2:23
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Are you a man? Are you a manly man? Use ore (俺). Are you a girly man? Use boku (僕). Are you being formal, unwilling to commit to 俺 or 僕, or just starting to learn Japanese? Use watashi (私).

Are you a girl? Are you a girly girl? Use atashi (あたし). (This rule isn't as fixed as the male rule). Are you a tomboy? Use boku (僕). Otherwise use watashi.

Are you speaking to a crowd, or being highly polite? Use watakushi (私, confusingly).

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This is a pretty good summary! One nitpick, though--male users of 僕 are usually not "girly." They just tend to be less hypermasculine than users of 俺. 僕 is still a pretty masculine personal pronoun. –  Amanda S May 31 '11 at 21:46
    
@Amanda it's true, but if you are a girly man, you almost always use 僕, but that doesn't mean that all 僕 users are girly. It's somewhat fluid, and even committed 俺 users will revert to 僕 in polite social situations. –  nevan king May 31 '11 at 21:54
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Just for anyone who doesn't know the reference: secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Girlie_men –  nevan king Jun 4 '11 at 16:25
    
僕 has a nuance of being immature, not fully grown up. It amuses many Japanese people, and they will think less of a politician or a CEO using 僕 to refer to himself. In situations where one can't use 俺, or a regional equivalent, I'd go all the way to 私(わた[く]し). –  jbcreix Jun 26 '11 at 1:57
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The social context is absolutely the deciding factor, but your personality affords you some additional flexibility. Just like deciding whether to use 〜さん or not, your choice of pronoun depends on how familiar you are with the people in your audience, and relative social status.

That said, I personally still gravitate towards 僕 over 私 even amongst new people since I'm a relatively young man and I feel like I can get away with it. :)

Also don't forget that not using the first-person pronoun is usually an option as well, which can nicely sidestep this issue.

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I presume I will make this comment a lot but be careful. Politeness is subtle and important, and using even 僕 over 私 may come across as arrogant in a given social context. I can absolutely imagine a Japanese manager using 僕 to refer to himself when addressing subordinates. –  Ali May 31 '11 at 21:22
    
Definitely. I still use 私 on occasion, especially when listing myself amongst respected peers. –  sartak May 31 '11 at 21:24
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