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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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    Good question! I remember coming out of a changing room at H&M only to be greeted by お疲れ様です by the shop staff. – Nubcake Apr 24 '19 at 17:53
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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. – l'électeur 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 '14 at 12:10
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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.

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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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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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THis is a hard one to translate. Answering specifically to the case you raised where you are the customer, it's just the business telling you that they acknowledge that you may have been in a physically demanding situation. It's a routine greeting. Take for instance, in a long-haul plane ride, JAL or ANA captain might tell you, 長らくのご搭乗、お疲れさまでした。

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