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I am a beginner to the Japanese language, and I understand that ええ and はい mean the same thing, yes. What I want to know is when to specifically use ええ and はい.

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The difference is, はい is polite, formal and safe in every kind of conversations. On the other hand, ええ is mild and polite but lacks sense of modesty and decisiveness compared with はい, and is inappropriate in situations where you need to reply under some authority.

Roughly saying, you don't use ええ when you reply to your sergeant.

  • It could be said that ええ is a deferential "yes" whereas はい is an affirmative and authoritative "yes", hence, why you could not reply with ええ to a sergeant but you could when agreeing with, say, a customer. – psosuna May 16 '18 at 17:15
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Both はい and ええ mean "Yes", and in many cases can be used interchangeably. Additionally, ええ can be used as the equivalent to "yeah" in English, so whenever you think "yeah" is an acceptable answer to someone, you can say ええ, and it won't be out of place.

also, ええ is often used in a a "Yes, but (or Yeah, but)..." statement, because it is slightly less formal than はい, and so it can be used to convey a sense of being somewhat less in agreement.

1: あの映画面白かったね! 2: ええ、そうだけどコメディよりドラマが好き。 "That movie was great/funny!" "Yeah, but I like dramas more than comedies."

And somewhat related to your question, there is one nuance of using "yes" in Japanese that is sometimes hard for beginners to pick up right away: answering a negative question with an ええ or はい which, unlike English, would mean you are agreeing with the negative question.

Q: 学校に行かないんですか?  A: ええ、気分が悪い、今日。 "You're not going to school?" "Yeah (I'm not), I feel bad/sick today."

  • If I forgot a nuance, actually saying what it is would be more helpful than just downvoting me. 9_9 – ericfromabeno May 15 '18 at 13:44
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    I was not the downvoter, but I think in a lot of contexts ええ is a polite "yes" rather than "yeah." – mamster May 15 '18 at 15:56
  • hmm. I think I can edit my answer to more appropriately reflect that, thanks. Although I have heard ええ used in situations where "Yeah" would not be out of place. – ericfromabeno May 15 '18 at 16:10
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    Combination of ええ and plain casual speech (except so-called feminine language) sounds unnatural. – user4092 May 16 '18 at 7:41
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    Please read what I wrote carefully. A fact that a kind of feminine speech happens to be one of casual speeches doesn't mean that casual speech with ええ makes it feminine. – user4092 May 16 '18 at 8:25
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From my experience:

Short answer

Both are used as "yes" as an affirmative response or as a conversation facilitator ("yes, I understand, please go on"). はい is not impolite, but ええ adds more "professional" to the conversation.

ええ

  • Used especially when communicating in a professional setting is important. For example: someone on a vendor/sales side to a customer/potential customer (or vice versa). Or used by a 専門家 being interviewed on TV about his/her specialty. However, はい in these settings can also be used and isn't necessarily "unprofessional". Depends on preference.

はい

  • All other situations. When in doubt, はい can be used.
  • rather than "more professional" I think ええ is used in the situations you describe because the speaker feels that はい is too emphatic. In business situations ええ can be used sometimes simply to express that a person is listening and understanding what is being said. – ericfromabeno May 15 '18 at 16:34
  • Thanks for the comment. Yeah I see what you're saying. The way I see it, "more professional" and "being able to control emphasis" are closely related. In casual conversation, regardless, ええ seems less frequently used, particularly with younger people. In this case, emphasis control, if needed, is placed on the intonation of はい. – Otomatonium May 15 '18 at 16:45
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    Feedback on downvotes would be greatly appreciated, thanks! – Otomatonium May 15 '18 at 18:53
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    My guess is that the people downvoting must be the higher level guys who really know their stuff, and they don't have patience for "halfway answers"... but they also don't have time to delve into what exactly is wrong because they're moderating the whole site. I've had to suffer through silent downvotes too. Oh well, 残念 – ericfromabeno May 16 '18 at 7:01
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    I don't think this answer is saying something necessarily wrong either. – user4092 May 16 '18 at 7:45

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