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Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/22 19:43
I've studied Japanese for a while now and have a JLPT2, so I'd say I'm decent at the language. But there's one thing that I'm still having trouble with, and that's what level of politeness is "appropriate" at first time meetings of a more casual nature.

When I'm with my Japanese friend, and he introduces me to his friends, I feel pretty comfortable using "futsuutai" and referencing myself as "ore" for example since that's what they're doing.

Of course when I'm talking in the street to someone I have not met I use keigo (pretty much regardless of who I'm talking to).

The times that I have the most trouble are the cases that fall somewhere in between. When you meet someone of about the same age and stature and in a fairly casual setting. As an example from my latest trip, me and my friend were walking down a shotengai and saw that they were doing a board game café. We were invited to sit down with two Japanese guys. I instinctively felt like this was an appropriate setting for a more casual manner of speech, but they were using keigo.

When meeting people in a casual setting like this, is it more "appropriate" to use keigo? Do you transition to more casual speech as you grow closer as friends? (talking long term here).

Another example is meeting someone on Tinder or similar. In my experience conversations start out with keigo, but do they transition over time?

Would you ever use futsuutai at a first meeting if there was no prior connection (like a common friend)?

It's also my impression that the level of politeness used in casual conversations among Japanese is quite heavily dependent on the personality of the person speaking. I.e. if you are timid you are probably more likely to use keigo. If two people are having a casual conversation and one is less comfortable using futsuutai, does the other person adjust and start speaking more politely as well?

I get that this is a topic with a lot of nuance, and not so much with answers in black and white, but I'm still hoping to get a bit more insight into this very interesting facet of Japanese culture.
by kurisu81  

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 11:16
The "setting" does not matter, what matters is primarily the social statuses of you and your interlocutor, and secondarily your degree of closeness.

If somebody's social status is clearly below yours, for example if they are significantly younger, then it's always okay for you to use "futsuutai" when talking to them, and never okay for them to use it when talking to you, at least not without your explicit permission (and be careful, even asking for permission to use it when talking to someone of higher status may be perceived as rude, though as always as a foreigner you have the option of being perceived as ignorant instead).

Note that the above applies no matter how close you are. Many Westerners find it awkward to use desu/masu (which, by the way, is not really keigo, keigo is something else) when talking to someone with whom they are close just because they are older, but that's how it works.

When you are of essentially equal status is where it gets blurry; I think the only "hard rule" is that when you don't know someone, you use desu/masu. After that, each relationship is different, and for that matter each person is different too. In the exact same context, one person might use desu/masu and another might not, without it causing any problem. For example, do you know the manga "Yotsuba"? If you read it in Japanese, you will see that Ena always speaks very politely, even to Yotsuba, who is younger than her. Her friend Miura, on the other hand, speaks much more "casually". This makes Miura look quite boyish and "tough", because that's how she is, but not an uncultured jerk.
by Firas rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 12:36
Firas explained it well.

...that they were doing a board game café. We were invited to sit down with two Japanese guys. I instinctively felt like this was an appropriate setting for a more casual manner of speech, but they were using keigo.

As a Japanese, I would use "teinei-go" (I assume this is what you mean, with "-desu" "-masu"), because (1) it is the first time I talk with those people, (2) I am the one who is "invited" by others, and (3) I don't feel the need to "close the distance" right off.

Would you ever use futsuutai at a first meeting if there was no prior connection (like a common friend)?

I can't think of any situation where I would use "futsuu-tai" at a first meeting with adults under such circumstances.

By the way:

When I'm with my Japanese friend, and he introduces me to his friends, I feel pretty comfortable using "futsuutai" and referencing myself as "ore" for example since that's what they're doing.

I am a Japanese woman so I would never use "ore," but in this situation I probably would have started out with "teinei-go," because they are friends but I just met them for the first time. (If there was a reason to start off already casual with them, then it might be the pressure to assimilate quickly to the group.) I would probably start out with "teinei-go," then gradually change to "futsuu-tai" as I get familiar with them.
by AK rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 16:38
I agree with the others, but first of all, how old are you? Especially among friends, it would be different if you're a teenage student as opposed to someone in his late twenties or older who are assumed to be a shakaijin.

Secondly, just to avoid confusion, I'm going to write based on my understanding that keigo consists of sonkeigo, kenjogo, and teineigo. For example, "sore, tabenainnara ore ga moraimasu." is teineigo and teineigo is still keigo.
https://townwork.net/magazine/knowhow/manners/baito_manners/13309/

Now, it's misleading to assume that keigo (including teineigo) is "formal speech". Keigo is the safest speech you can use, and therefore you tend to start with that in any occasion and keep coming back to it. It's more like "standard" speech as opposed to "friends and family" speech.

Do you transition to more casual speech as you grow closer as friends? (talking long term here).

Yes. And even friends who don't use keigo when meeting in person would use keigo when writing to each other (including texting, internet forums etc.). Or often you are expected to use keigo to fathers/mothers in-law no matter how close you get. I've never used Tinder, but internet users are usually expected to use keigo even among regular community members, especially when they only know each other off-line. You'd even use keigo (teineigo) to toddlers.

Interestingly, however, more people tend to use futsuutai in social networking (like Facebook or Twitter) compared to things like keijiban, if you have already been speaking in futsuugo when meeting that person.

It's also my impression that the level of politeness used in casual conversations among Japanese is quite heavily dependent on the personality of the person speaking.

Indeed, some people get away with using futsuutai in their first meeting or even to older people. Similarly, just as it is in any language, there are certain ways that certain groups might talk in (which is the reason I asked your age). But the "standard" is keigo, and whether you're in a hip-hop event or the beach, that's what you're expected to use to someone you just met.

So as suggested, there's nothing wrong with using keigo when meeting anyone for the first time. But if you find your role model who gets away with futsuugo in all first-time meetings, study that person well to see how he does it.

By the way, some locals do seem to prefer those who never use keigo, because it makes you feel closer. But then some hate those who never use keigo, because it sounds disrespectful or sloppy. At the wrong place, it would even sound like a come-on.

Actually, documentaries may be a great way to study how people talk to people in real life, because it's non-fiction.
by Uco rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 17:12
Thank you guys, these are some great answers and I'll take some time to digest everything said. But in short, I'll feel way less worried about sounding "too polite" when using teineigo in more casual situations going forward.

Since you asked, Uco, here's some more info about myself. I'm 36, but for what it's worth I look quite a bit younger. (I think most people would put me in the mid-20s.) My friend that I mentioned is the same age, and I'd imagine his friends are about the same or maybe a bit younger. I lived and studied Japanese full-time in Tokyo for 18 months about ten years ago. So I'm a little bit off on some terminology (as noted I used "keigo" when "teineigo" was a more appropriate descriptor).
by kurisu81 rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 17:29
Actually it seems that 丁寧語 is indeed normally considered part of 敬語, which I find quite weird because it is so common. To me, when I say 敬語 I think just 尊敬語 and 謙譲語. (By the way, the 丁寧語 form of する is します to me, and いたします is the 丁寧語 form of いたす, which itself is one of the many 謙譲語 forms of する.)
by Firas rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/23 17:44
Thank you for the feedback, kurisu. If you're younger, you're excused to do a lot of things and people would simply assume "Well, he belongs to a whole new generation which I can't say much about." but since you're in your mid 30s, you're qualified to act like an adult no matter how young you look ;)

One thing to keep in mind is that since you were much younger when you studied the language comprehensively, you need to remind yourself that you aren't that youth any more (which can exactly be said about me, because I used to be a pre-teen when I learned to speak English fluently while living in the U.S.).

Firas wrote:
Actually it seems that 丁寧語 is indeed normally considered part of 敬語, which I find quite weird because it is so common

Exactly. It is indeed the common form of speech.
by Uco rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/24 15:31
I think the above replies explained well, and my additional comment might be useless, but let me try anyway.
I don't find very appropriate the terminology used in the learning of this usage. But, I will accept for the moment ordinary terms used most likely in Japanese language instruction (I myself have no experience of teaching Japanese to foreigners).

I know it is really hard to explain this entirely and clearly, because the use of the so called polite language (or honorific style, respect style, humble style, polite style, plain style) is immanent in the system of Japanese social and individual human relationships. Understanding it liguistically and using it adequately in your real life are different.

First, you, the OP, must make a clear distinction between the keigotai (honorific, respect and humble styles) and the futsūtai/teineigo (plain/polite styles). Because these are in different categories.

The keigotai is used premising the difference of social statuses (higher rank / lower rank), or the certain difference of age (older / youger), it is therefore used in fixed social relationships, it is not flexible, it is irreversible; you are therefore not allowed whether you use or don't use the keigotai style according to your feeling. It is beyond your free intention. It is required rigidly in your social life.

On the contrary, the pair of futsūtai/teineigo can be used on your intention, they are used among family members, friends, equals. With family members the plain style is usually used, and with friends and equals, both the plain style and the polite style can be generally used, and the transition from/to of these two style is, in a sense, flexible, especially among friends and equals who have a little difference of age. A regular transition from the polite (-desu/-masu) to the plain is common, but a reverse transition from the plain to the polite sometimes occurs, according to your mental state or your fantasy. It is therefore a psychological inward game between you and your interlocutors. Because it all depends on the feeling of mental closeness/distance, and this closeness/distance is not necessarily fixed, it is, I repeat, flexible and reversible.

So, as long as enough closeness is not established yet between you and your interlocutor(s), you must ordinarily use the polite form (-desu, -masu). This distance may turn, gradually or at one moment, to a certain mental closeness or familiarity, you can then use the plain style, and if, at your change of style, your interlocutor(s) feel as close as you do, the conversation will turn in natural way to the plain style. Or, you can make an implicit sign to your interlocutor(s) by using intentionally the plain style at a moment. Anyway, unless both sides feel the same level of closeness, your relationship with your interlocutors is still unsteady, and it would be rude for you to use the plain style in one way. It is very possible that your interlocutors don't feel as much closeness as you, because you are for the present nothing but temporary acquaintances, and that they are not mentally ready for your familiarity. In other words, it might be also possible that, by continuing to use the polite style, they blame you inward to be rude or ignorant.

I also wondered how old you were, because the discussion I made above is not necessarily true among young school students and even college students, who are considered as socially immature, but it is true among adults, who are no more under educational protection. So...

As for using "ore", I have my opionion, but it's another story.

Be persevere in your Japanese language learning.

by ... (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Levels of politeness in casual conversations 2017/9/24 16:32
Just to be perfectly clear, when I'm talking about "casual conversations" I certainly am excluding any instance where you are required to use sonkeigo or kenjougo, and as such am considering them outside the scope of the question. Though I may have worded my question with poor terminology (as noted it's been quite some time since I had any formal training) I was simply wondering about the pair of futsuutai/teineigo in the context of meeting and making friends in casual environments. And I feel like I have gotten very good replies.

I always try and not be presumptive about how casually I can speak to new friends. As the foreigner I always try to match the level of politeness of my conversation partner (when appropriate of course). But I feel there are so many nuances here, hence the original question.

Thank you everyone for chiming in!
by kurisu81 rate this post as useful

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