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How to Make Small Talk in Japanese

“Atsui desu ne” and other phrases to help you fill an awkward silence in Japan.

By 3 min read

One of the strangest things for me when I moved from Osaka to a part of town that, you know, didn’t look like a Blade Runner-esque, post-apocalyptic hellscape, was that people actually started greeting me and acknowledging my existence.

For the first time, I actually had to interact with normal people on a daily basis. However, these interactions revealed some weaknesses in my skillset. Even though I felt my Japanese vocab was up to the task, I often used it in an inappropriate way for the situation and made things more awkward than they already were!

One of the strangest examples of this is when Japanese people ask obvious questions simply to be polite. The lady who lives below you has a leash in her hand and a constantly fidgeting small dog clutched in the other? You might hear someone unironically ask 散歩さんぽですか? The schoolgirl who lives next door and has a bag covered in the meticulously coiffed faces of her favorite Korean pop idols? How about asking her, K-POPはきですか?

Luckily, if you are in doubt about what the person may be interested in, it is safe to go for meaningless talk about the weather in Japan too.

The ubiquitous あついですね is a good example of this. As are other similar forms such as さむいですね etc.

Of course, this type of set phrase should not be taken literally (everyone, of course, knows it’s hot) and should instead be considered as meaning “I am trying to fill this silence with talk, please reciprocate.”

Other set phrases along these lines include:

  • 今日はいい天気てんきですね = Today is good weather, isn’t it?
  • 今日、あめひどいですね = Today, this rain is terrible, isn’t it?
  • 最近さいきんあつくなってましたね = Recently, it’s getting hotter, isn’t it?

…and one for those who want to make their Japanese sound better than it actually is:

  • めっきりさむくなった = It’s got remarkably colder

So what happens if the person lets you in one something deeper. In this case, the 相槌あいづち come in useful. Roughly 相槌 are short words or sentences designed to reassure the speaker that you are listening and deeply interested in what they are saying.

Some of the ones you’ve probably heard are:

  • はい = yes (I understand, I hear you)
  • そうですね = right, that is so (I agree with what you’re saying)
  • 大変たいへんですね = ah, that’s tough (I sympathize with you and I am glad that’s not me)
  • いいですね = that’s good (I am jealous of you but in a friendly way)

For stronger emotions, you can use 感動 かんどうしました (I was moved by it). However, it’s worth remembering that Japanese people tend to feel icky when a lot of emotion is being shown, so get the balance right.

Interestingly, a lot of the small you might come across when you’re out and about in Japan are completely meaningless formalities. Ever heard いっらしゃいませ at a shop and felt the irresistible urge to say something back? It’s fine to simply nod or even to ignore the greeting. Similarly, it is perfectly fine not to say anything when you leave a shop, no need to retreat with your back to the door bowing again and again.

That said, when you get off a taxi or bus, you’ll want to say ありがとう! Also, when leaving a restaurant, you should say thank you for the food that you just received. In this case, ごちそうさまでした is a useful way to say this. This only really applies in smaller, family-run joints, no need to gush all over that McDonald’s sexy McFizz or First Kitchen slop!

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