I am often confused on which level of politeness to use between people who are relatively close.

For example, let say I am talking when a friend in Japanese and we use plain form. Although a close friend of that person comes along and joins the conversation. How does the use politeness change between the group?

If its someone I know but would normally use ~ます/丁寧語 form with, would the entire group switch to that? Or would the politeness stay the same between each person of the group?

I have read a different question that was helpful but it is more centered around formalities with work.

  • 1
    Great question. It's the sort of thing you eventually build intuition for (or so I think), but it can be hard to do that without lots of exposure to different real-world situations. May 27, 2015 at 8:13

1 Answer 1


My experience in Japan is that you mix levels. When in a group conversation, you tend to keep the level of politeness you have with that particular person. If it is someone new, you keep it 丁寧語.

That being said, I have noticed that this rule can be a bit relaxed, in the sense that you may introduce some plain form with the person you almost do not know in the context of the group general politeness level, specially if she/he is a friend of your friends, and you are in a casual environment. However, I personally try to see what is the feeling with the new person, and whether it is or not appropriate to use plain form (for example, in a work meeting, you should probably always keep the appropriate level).

As mentioned by @DariusJahandarie, experience is your best teacher. Also, keep in mind that using 丁寧語 you may never be wrong (but mistakingly using plain form may convey the wrong impression).

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    "When in a group conversation, you tend to keep the level of politeness you have with that particular person." This is true and the basic principle. One can observe this, for example, in a TV program (which may also be found on youtube) where many comedians (they are known to have a rigid hierarchy) talk about something -- one comedian will be found to be talking in a polite form to particular fellow(s) while using a plain form toward the other fellows.
    – norio
    May 28, 2015 at 2:55
  • @norio very true. I just remembered an interesting situation I witnessed the other day. A colleague was talking with his wife by the phone, and he was constantly changing from polite to plain form. With his wife. I cannot say for sure, but I guess it had to do with the topic at hand and their relative hierarchy regarding that topic. I have seen also something similar between school buddies. So, it is not even like you can alway use plane form with your closest friend. I may also depend on the context.
    – ddiez
    May 28, 2015 at 3:02
  • that situation between your colleague and his wife sounds a little wierd... but may be understandable if 'the level of politeness' is light -- some people use "です" and "ます" in a rather casual conversation even mixed with the plain form sentences. I would also guess that 'seriousness' of the topic may also influence the choice of polite or plain form.
    – norio
    May 28, 2015 at 3:25
  • I thought it was weird but yes, the level of politeness was light. Certainly must have been something related to the topic.
    – ddiez
    May 28, 2015 at 3:29

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