Japanese is constantly ranked as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, and for good reason. Not only does it have three different writing systems and gendered language, but terms and verbs change depending on level of politeness.
For those who wish to work and thrive in Japan, wading through the morass of sonkeigo (respectful language), kenjougo (humble language) and teineigo (polite language) may seem like a hassle, especially when so many Japanese people also have trouble keeping all the proper terms straight.
However, being able to bend all those fancy words to your will can make you a formidable opponent in the boardroom, open new career opportunities and (to be totally honest) make you sound far more senior and convincing than you are!
Although textbooks can be helpful, they only tend to cover the most basic phrases and verbs, and rarely explain how to push back in a polite way. From most to least friendly, a few of my favorite bits of repertoire are:
5. お目にかかることを楽しみにしております (O-me ni kakaru koto wo tanoshimi ni shiteorimasu)
A personal favorite of mine, this is simply an intensely polite way of saying ‘I look forward to seeing you’. I find it particularly useful when e-mailing business contacts who I haven’t seen in a while, and it has the added benefit of sounding friendly while not crossing over the line to informality, which is ideal if you are in a ‘lower’ hierarchical position or are asking a favor.
4. まことに勝手ではございますが ~ (Makoto ni katte de wa gozaimasu ga ~)
If you need to press an issue or make a final statement, this little gem adds an appropriate apologetic touch to a decision which you cannot (or will not) change. It could be translated as ‘I realize this is an imposition, but…’ and is alright to use in both speech and writing.
- Appropriate usage: “Makoto ni katte de wa gozaimasu ga…I will not come to the office due to illness today”
- Inappropriate usage: “Makoto ni katte de wa gozaimasu ga…your outfit is awful”
3. ~ できかねます/分かりかねます (~ dekikanemasu/wakarikanemasu)
The verb kaneru is a great way to express a refusal in a way that doesn’t sound quite so negative. Two of the most common usages are ‘I am unable to’ and ‘I cannot be certain’ and if used at the right time can sound pretty spiffy coming from a non-native speaker, as well as being beautifully polite. The second example is of particular help if you need to stall for time or have to ask for confirmation from someone else before giving a firm answer to the person you are speaking to.
- Appropriate usage: “I am sorry, but the change you requested dekikanemasu”
2. 恐縮ですが ~ (Kyoushuku desu ga ~)
A very useful little phrase when you want to ask a rhetorical question or get a deeper explanation, it would be equivalent to ‘Forgive me for asking, but…’. Depending on tone of voice and inflection it can mean everything from ‘you don’t seriously mean that…’ to simply being a polite request for clarification.
- Appropriate usage: “Kyoushuku desu ga…when did you say that deadline is?!”
- Inappropriate usage: “Kyoushuku desu ga…could you pass me the chopsticks?”
1. お言葉ですが ~ (O-kotoba desu ga ~)
For when you need to bring out the big guns. While technically this means ‘Sorry, but I disagree’, the actual effect is forceful enough to make a whole room go quiet, and so should not be used lightly. In 10 years I have perhaps used it twice, and in both cases it scared the living daylights out of the person I was speaking to which is exactly the desired effect. This is usually only used in speech, not writing.
- Appropriate usage: “O-kotoba desu ga…your plan to cut salaries by 50% will backfire”
- Inappropriate usage: “O-kotoba desu ga…I think miso ramen is better than shoyu ramen”
One thing to keep in mind is that being hyper-polite can also be considered a form of snarkiness and a way to emphasize distance between oneself and the other person (albeit one that cannot be faulted), so watch your inflection to make sure you are putting across your intended message correctly.
Do you have any keigo tricks you like to whip out from time to time to wow your business partners? Let us know in the comments!