A bit about hierarchy

Many languages have clear distinctions between formal and informal language, popularly known as the T/V distinction. This is about showing distance and respect, whether you are speaking with people you consider your peers/juniors, or your superiors. In many languages this manifests in pronouns and the verbs that we use with them: there is a respectful pronoun for superiors and/or maybe plural ‘you,’ e.g. vous in French, and then there’s the informal ‘you,’ e.g. tu in French.

English used to have something like this back when we used more pronouns, like thou and thee, but that’s archaic now. In modern English, the line between ‘respectful’ speech and informal speech is pretty blurry, and the way we use language in Australia, we are quite informal a lot of the time. Obvious exceptions are times like making a speech at a meeting, presenting a paper at an academic conference, announcing the news, or maybe talking to your prospective parents-in-law. At these times we often use more formal words, i.e. lexical items that convey a sense of sophistication, or words that make us seem smart/educated. There is a degree of formality in how we speak to seniors like our teachers or bosses, but we probably wouldn’t go so far as to exclude contractions (I’m, you’re, it’s).

Japanese has clear degrees of formality in speech, but respectful pronouns/titles are only a small part of it. There’s normal speech that kids use, there’s polite speech that they’re supposed to use when they talk to their teachers, and there’s ‘respectful’ (or humble?) speech that you use if you are in the position of a supplicant, or if you work in customer service. Wikibooks sums it up pretty well here. Basically, pronouns, nouns and verbs are altered depending on who you’re talking to or about. Acquiring the Japanese language as an adult, especially coming from English where these distinctions don’t exist in the same way, has been fascinating and difficult mostly in knowing when to use keigo (respectful speech).

It’s all about social rank and seniority. If someone is older than you, you should use keigo with them, but they don’t have to use it with you. This is perhaps the reason why it’s not rude to ask people’s age in Japan.  A Japanese friend of mine was going to meet another Japanese friend of mine, and asked me ‘How old are they?’ On hearing that the other friend was older than himself (by about a year, if I recall), my friend sighed. He was going to have to use keigo.

Familiarity makes this awkward after a while, for me, anyway. With my Japanese friends who are older than me, I use it a bit, especially in writing, but for me at least, it’s hard to relax when you’re using keigo. It’s designed to create distance and show humility. In this video, one I enjoyed quite a bit, from about 8:00, two well-seasoned foreigners living in Japan discuss this topic.

My current job, ALT, places me as a technically unqualified teaching assistant in schools. This means that in the staff room, everybody is my senior, even the newest teacher who’s in his first year out of uni. This is part of life as being an ALT. Another part of ALT life is that you get to leave school when school finishes, while all the other teachers are there until probably at least 7pm if not 8 or 9. The usual aisatsu for someone leaving before others is Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu (It’s rude of me to leave before you), and the typical response is Otsukare sama deshita (Thanks for your hard work, or literally, ‘You must be tired’). But there is another way to respond, which while still technically polite, you can only use with someone who is your inferior/junior: Gokurou-san. This is translated as ‘Thank you for your trouble,’ or ‘Thank you for doing what is expected of you,’ or ‘I appreciate your effort,’ depending on your dictionary. Maybe it’s the equalist/feminist in me (it’s usually a male teacher who says this to me), but this seems condescending. I guess you could say it’s like saying something like, ‘Good work, kiddo!’ or ‘Thanks for your work, which is not worth as much as mine, because you are younger than me.’ Gah.

Have you ever found it difficult to decide your levels of formality with someone from another culture? Especially in a second language? Leave a comment!

As always, thanks for reading 🙂


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