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In case I am talking with someone using the informal form but we are not close friends yet (perhaps a close acquaintance or someone I'm chatting with online) and I want to ask him a personal question (what is his occupation, something about his family ,etc.), should I proceed with the informal form or should I switch to polite (or even honorific) language to ask him the question?

3

This heavily depends on your character, your age, the relationship between you and him, and how personal the information you're trying to get is. In general, using honorific forms is probably an overkill, but temporarily switching to the です/ます style will not harm.

Personally, I am relatively slow to start dropping です/ます, and I am unlikely to talk with someone using the informal language if I don't even know his occupation.

1

It's not that uncommon to be talking simultaneously to two or more people using different levels of familiarity/politeness, but for the same person, using the same level throughout a conversation is the norm.

Switching between levels of formality/humility in the same conversation with the same person is just not necessary. Even if the kinds of things you wish to talk about change from "general" to "personal", whatever form of speech the two of you began with, you can continue with. That said, if you choose to switch to using the polite "masu" form of verbs rather than the root form, I don't think that's bad. Your conversation partner might misunderstand and think that you suddenly feel less comfortable with them, but I doubt any real conflicts will occur.

I have always had a problem with "keigo". I get easily confused by humble vs polite vs honorific speech... though I have been told over and over that as a foreigner, it is fine to simply use the polite form with everyone all the time, until you consider them to be close friends (and as long as you are outside of work... at work always use polite speech... a rule I break far too often, but get away with because my schools are very kind....)

There have been times when I switch back and forth between levels of politeness, and as a foreigner these are either ignored as "he just doesn't know" situations, or it gets a small laugh or a humorous comment.

doing a google search for "when to use keigo" might lead you to useful websites.

  • "for the same person, using the same level throughout a conversation is the norm." I would strongly disagree with this. In particular, use of plain form in a conversation where the background discourse level is ます form is so common I'd call it a standard feature of spoken Japanese. It's not "necessary" in the sense that it changes the meaning of what is said, but it's necessary as a matter of discourse competence. The phenomenon is called "style shift"; here's a paper I found, although I've only skimmed it: citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/… – mamster Dec 4 '18 at 1:04
  • Also, sorry if I came off as combative; I just think this is a fascinating feature of the language. It's fun if you haven't thought about it before to listen to native conversations and count the number of style shifts; it will blow you away. – mamster Dec 4 '18 at 1:07
  • ummm... the second and third sentence in that paper you linked actually back me up.... what I said is that using the same level throughout a conversation is the norm. And this is what that paper said: "In Japanese, choice of speech style is obligatory and is maintained throughout an interaction. However, occasional style shifts can be observed..." (emphasis mine). In addition, that paper is all about tv/radio performances, which again cannot be considered "normal", and specifically mentions style changes as part of a dialogue where different characters are being represented... – ericfromabeno Dec 4 '18 at 8:20
  • Eric, I assure you: if you listen to conversations between native speakers, style shifts are the norm, not the exception. But I should probably take this to chat, sorry! – mamster Dec 4 '18 at 15:14
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How formal/polite you are (or should be) depends on the nature of your relationship. If they’re older, in a more senior position, or you don’t know them very well, you use some degree of formality. This should not change during the course of a conversation.

Mixing formal and plain forms is clumsy, although it will be forgiven for non-native speakers unless you’re in a position where you should really know better (such as working in a Japanese company). It’s best to be consistent and use the same forms throughout a conversation (or letter or email) if you can. If you are a non-native speaker, it is unlikely that you'll be a situation where you are expected to use honorifics or 敬語. Using the polite ます forms should be acceptable with friends or acquaintances.

If this is someone you meet regularly, you should use the same level of politeness for an entire meeting. If you are unsure if it’s appropriate, it’s probably best to keep with polite forms and let them initiate if they want to speak as peers or friends. In Japanese culture, it’s not uncommon to maintain formalities with friends, rather than switching to a “first name basis”. This does not mean they don’t regard you as a friend, they may reserve using plain language for people they’re really close with such as family and childhood friends.

If you are learning Japanese and they’re a friend of yours they should be willing to help you if you ask them nicely. It would be better to ask what they’re comfortable with rather than assuming as it depends a lot on how they view your relationship (and how familiar they are with foreign customs). Some will feel obliged to use formal speech when speaking Japanese which is why they may prefer to speak English since they can speak “more freely” without worrying about politeness or hierarchy.

If it’s a friend, you can reciprocate if they drop formalities but I’d wait for them to do so first (or ask them). If it’s a colleague, your boss, or someone older than you, it’s more complicated: they may also use plain forms as you’re their “subordinate” and they’ll still expect you to use polite forms with them. Since many Japanese people meet their friends through the workplace, it can be confusing since they’ll speak differently when talking as friends or coworkers.

  • Most foreigners are not expected to use honorifics or 敬語 so the polite ます forms should be okay most of the time. is a really pointless statement to include though, isn't it? Most foreigners in Japan aren't expected to be able hold chopsticks properly, pronounce ありがとう correctly, or have a clue about anything Japanese really either. – Will Dec 5 '18 at 2:17
  • How so? The question pertains to which level of politeness to use. Even some Japanese people struggle with using 敬語 properly. The question even asks specifically whether these should be used in a context when they should not be necessary. – Tom Kelly Dec 5 '18 at 2:20
  • Surely if using 敬語 is the most appropriate choice in a given situation, that remains the same regardless of the speaker's race/nationality, and vice versa? – Will Dec 5 '18 at 2:24
  • That’s exactly the point. It depends on your relationship as speakers. If you are both Japanese native speakers you could be expected to use 敬語 when it would be appropriate as they should know better. There are subtle nuances that influence when it would be appropriate. This depends on culture, not language. A foreigner would be using correct language if they did not and their relationships with Japanese people will be inherently different. You can be polite and be understood without 敬語, when to use is an advanced topic with not much relevance to the question. – Tom Kelly Dec 5 '18 at 3:11
  • Whether or not, foreigners are capable of using 敬語, Japanese people generally do not expect them to do so. They certainly will not be offended if someone is unable to, they understand that it is difficult to learn. Considering this expectation, non-native speakers should not feel pressured to use honorific forms correctly and should not be afraid to make mistakes. It should be understood, that you don't mean to offend if you don't use the correctly level of politeness but it will still be appreciated if you can (or even attempt to). – Tom Kelly Dec 5 '18 at 4:14

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