How do I know how to speak to a Japanese person? Casual vs Polite

I couldn’t find a topic on this, but if there is one I am sorry :sweat_smile:

So basically, I am starting to try to speak to Japanese people in order to put what I learn into practice and to not lag behind in my (nonexistent) “conversation level”. And something that two of them told me was that I was too polite, but they couldn’t explain HOW I should know what level of politness to use because “it is just logical”… which of course it isn’t for my poor foreign brain :unamused: (apart from the fact that textbooks mainly teach polite Japanese so that you don’t accidentally offend someone, so I’m not really always sure how to use casual Japanese)

So, I wanted to ask, how do you know when to speak casually and when to speak politely to a person? And how do you know WHICH level of politness you have to use with said person?

For example, from what I had understood, you have to speak with people older than you in a more polite way, but how much older than you do they have to be? And does whether you’re a girl or a guy have any sort of influence on the politness of your speech?

Anyway, any help would appreciate it, maybe if people living in Japan have any idea?


Also, this is my first time creating a topic woohoo and I have no idea what I’m doing lol


If you’re going in as a tourist, です/ます form basically covers you for every situation you’ll run into.

Otherwise, basic rule of thumb is casual with friends, polite with strangers, formal with people in higher social standing.


Plus I usually try to take cues from the other person to see what level of formality they are using if unsure.


What’s the difference in those cases? I’m always confused on that distinction…

So basically talk like how they talk to me?

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Precisely. Start off polite and if you see they switch to casual, switch too. If you don’t, sometimes it’s seen as kind of rude: you’re trying to keep distance from them without an apparent reason.


If you’re a beginner (or even if you’re advanced but don’t use Japanese in a business setting), no one will expect you to use things like sonkeigo or kenjougo, so I wouldn’t worry about it much.


Be careful with this, though. If you’re in a work environment, for example, and your boss or even boss’s boss comes at you with “casual” language, that should not be your cue to also switch to casual Japanese in most cases. (I still struggle with this because generally what comes to mind first is what I hear around me, so separating levels of politeness can be a real challenge.)


This is really true, but there is one minor and optional exception: dealing with other people’s kids. You can certainly use 丁寧語 with kids, but it’s kind of off-putting for everyone involved. Maybe other people will disagree with me about it.


Quite. “Speak to them as they speak to you” is not the rule of thumb. It’s “speak to them the same way your peers speak to them”.

The difference between “polite” and “formal” or the difference between “strangers” and “people with higher social standing”?

If the former, “polite” is です/ます. “Formal” is keigo, full on fancy verbs and so forth. ご覧になる and いらっしゃいます and such. The sort of language that the guy behind the register at the local kombini uses with you (because in that situation, the customer has the higher social standing).

I should use keigo, then? :stuck_out_tongue:


I have had this problem a lot talking to the neighborhood kids xD They get so confused at how they should respond when I talk to them in polite language.

In general though @NatElf, you should consider this an advanced problem. Adults will not be offended at a foreigner making mistakes in what level of politeness to use. I make mistakes literally all the time and it doesn’t cause problems. The only situation where you need to make sure you are not making mistakes is when talking to customers. I don’t think you are in this situation yet, so don’t worry and go ahead and make mistakes.

for simple guidelines on the situations to use which politeness, the above posts cover it.


If you use keigo with someone inappropriately though, does it not come across as sarcastic? Like how you might call someone “your highness” when they’re being a jerk.


I have been told that by japanese people (in response to foreigners using -Sama ironically), so I imagine that extends to formal speech in dissonant situations. Think about it, in English if you receive an order and reply with “yes, Master” or a more jocular term, “your wish is my command”, that would also come off as snarky in most cases.


I wouldn’t call myself an expert on this by any stretch, but my teacher explains the difference as a way to create or close distance with the person you are talking to, so I keep that in the back of my mind when trying to decide which tone to use. For example you may want to close the distance with your peer group or coworkers as you get to know them, but keep a professional distance with a superior or stranger.


Not keigo, you should use tameguchi (i.e. casual speech, no です/ます) with kids.

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I was joking. Kinda thought the smiley made that clear.

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Oh. Didn’t realize that, sorry.


I guess that’s logical because he’ll always be my “superior” no matter what? Just like if a teacher speaks casually to me, I should still be polite to them?

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@Peyo I had the problem in my host family in Japan when I said おやすみなさい to the kids (it was the first night and I didn’t know we could say おやすみ) and they looked at me as if I had three heads xD

I guess they’d be happy enough I can speak Japanese lol.

And nope, I don’t need to talk to customers, and by the time I have to, I hope I’ll know enough Japanese to be able to use the proper level of formality and all the vocabulary that goes with it…

So if I want to get closer to my peers, I’d use more casual speech and if I want to keep a distance I’d use more polite speech?


Too bad these two rules can sometimes seem contradictory! I have a Japanese friend who is about 10-14 years older than I am. She is pretty cool (used to work as a music manager for Japanese reggae/ska bands). She floats somewhere between casual and neutral/polite Japanese with me, but I try to keep to neutral ます/です, mostly. She is also a Japanese teacher, and has told me she will flat out tell me when I make big mistakes.

I also go to convo clubs in Amsterdam, and the Japanese conversation partners have once strongly reminded me to use ます/です (this was years ago). But they are also 10-30 years older than I am.

People I knew before I started learning Japanese, and occasionally speak/text in Japanese with, I also try to keep to ます/です, as they do the same with me. Kids I try to stay casual with, which is hard, especially if their parent is in the room, and having a three way conversation!

My teacher has always said (paraphrasing here), stick to neutral/polite, unless you are so close that you spend time together (outside of work) potentially at least 3 times a week, and you’re also roughly the same age.

But it can also heavily depend on the individual’s character. Teacher for example has couple friends, of who the wife very quickly switched to casual speech, but the husband steadfastly kept speaking neutral, to the point where his wife called him out on it. But he said he just was that way.


That’s right. By way of counter example, someone could try casual speech on a new acquintence in his or her social circle and gauge how interested that person might be in developing the relationship toward friendship by whether the response is casual or polite. I think that is what those people meant by “it’s just logical”