• I am expected to use polite forms when speaking to someone socially above me. Let's take for example, a teacher.

    If our relationship improves, and it becomes permissible for me to speak casually to the teacher, then if I speak to that teacher in the presence of another party. How should I behave?

(Question) Is the politeness determined by accountability to the person I'm addressing, or is it accountable to external societal pressures?

  • @Andry already gave a very thorough answer, but I would pitch in my own anecdotal experience, which is that there is that 'relationship improvement' doesn't factor so much in the level of speech you use. There might be exception, but generally, no matter how long and friendly I'd know someone, I'll tend to stick to the same level of honorific.
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 0:12
  • @Dave: That is why I reported "my experience" and what I ended up thinking from them. My answer was intended to provide a real experience. I lived in Japan for one year and that is what I could catch. I am not saying it is correct... of course, as I mentioned, there were times when people addressed each other keeping plain while the general context was different, but it was rare for me to see such situations. I think that my answer applies quite well for company contexts, but for real life, everything happened... You might be right Dave as I might be right...
    – Andry
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 20:59
  • @Dave: I am going to investigate a little more about this, stay tuned :) Quite intriguing matter :)
    – Andry
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 21:00

1 Answer 1


Basing on my experience it depends more by the context rather than the two interlocutors and their relationship. I am going to tell you my experiences, and what my teachers told me.

At work

When I was at work I was the (saying it not badly) the very last one in the hierarchy I would say. I worked in one of the 4 biggest research facilities of one of the biggest Communication and Technology companies in Japan. There I always addressed people in my group (superiors and sempai, but not necessary older) using polite style (ます-form actually). They all used the ます-form.

Once I befriended another guy who was younger than me (another university student). Like me he was having a traineeship over there. At the beginning we started with ます, but then we became friends (more) and I was allowed to talk with him using first names and plain style. But when we were together with our team leader or supervisors, we used ます-form with each other. The same goes for welcome parties and so on. At work, when we were alone, we used plain style.

My superiors always used ます-form with me. But when we went together drinking and partying (something very important in work contexts in Japanese society), they were sometimes quite straightforward with me, sometimes they used plain style, but after the mood got really up and easy. Back to work, of course back to ます-form.

At work, sport activities and recreational activities

When I was together with my team colleagues (I was the youngest), we went together for some trips and nice activities. We used plain style there. Back during work, especially during meetings, we were all using ます-form. When we went for some activity which involved our superiors, we addressed each other using family names and ます-form. However some superiors were really nice people and allowed us to be free to use plain style. They say that these people are 喋{しゃべ}りやすい or 話{はな}しやすい => Easy to talk with.

During that time I also used to practice sports. During those activities it was me and many other people from my company and other companies nearby. All together, while playing, we were really plain! No ます-form at all. So easy and nice. Just straight to first names. Maybe at the beginning it was a little hard, but after two times together they get used to you. Consider also that using plain style is quite easy when there are 外人 (gaijin: foreigners). Japanese people are encouraged to use plain style.


I addressed my teachers always by their family names. Knew their given names only in the very last days of school ahah. Always using ます-form. I only used plain form when practicing it! The teacher actually started saying: "ok, now I am your friend... let's talk...".


From my experience, conversation styles are driven by context, not just the two interlocutors. You can be friend with someone and talk plain with him, but if the contexts enlarges and embraces people higher in the hierarchy (especially at work), then, no matter your relationship with that person, you must change the language level and adapt it accordingly.

Just one more last thing...

When it comes to politeness using 敬{けい}語{ご} and 尊{そん}敬{けい}語{ご} (honorific languages), this is quite obvious to see for those who live in Japan. I mean, consider コンビニ (Convenience stores). In those places, personnel are compelled to use honorific language when speaking to guests (お客{きゃく}様{さま}). Many times I was paying and the desk and it happened that the man in front of me said something to his colleague. They were the same age and none was a supervisor or something... just normal コンビニ people probably working there as a part time. Often when talking to each other in front of me (one giving some advice or similar) they used ます-form and sometimes the honorific language. Rarely I heard them talk plain in fornt if me...

Hope I could be helpful...


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