When to use formal language?

こんにちは ヾ(๑╹◡╹)ノ"
So, this is more a question to the ones here on WaniKani whose first language is not English. More specifically to other Europeans who have some kind of formal “polite” language too. (Because I have absolutely no idea about non-european languages, sorry.) In my native language German polite language is usually just changing the pronouns when talking directly to someone (you - du → Sie). Of course Japanese is a bit more complicated but that’s just another thing to learn. I just noticed that every resource I use that’s aimed for English natives is desperately trying to make the student get in which situations they should use formal language. Can I just skip these really weird explanations because the situations will likely be the same in Japanese as in German or is Japanese really that much different? For instance in the latest tofugu article about 中 and 内 the train situation was super logical, because in German even if it was grammatically correct you would almost never hear someone using Du instead of Sie. The same goes for casual spoken language and written formal language. There is a difference between grammar, word choice and even pronounciation of said words when I write an email to my co-worker and when I talk to him.

To sum it up; can I apply that concept to Japanese or should I quickly forget about that idea because it will make it harder for me eventually?

Thanks in advance for your help (//∇//)\


I think it’s best to forget about trying to apply anything from Indo-European to Japanese.


Would you be able to send a link of the tofugu article, please?

That depends. Does German have the same concept of uchi vs soto:


I think any pre-assumption you make in the earlier stage would make things getting harder when you are on the deeper levels. However, it’s depend on your learning goal I think. If you don’t plan to go that deep in learning Japanese and apply those concepts would make your Japanese reach your goal faster, then why not.

This happen a lot in those 3 month fluent or you could communicate in 1 month langauge courses. They make a lot of short cut based on learner native language. And they really can communicate in that time frame! One of my friend did that for English but she found it really difficult when she learn English on the deeper level for studying Master degree.

I’ve read an interesting article about Uchi-soto culture in many slice of life manga especially Doraemon. It does explain a lot about those characters behavior.

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I’m probably leaning toward misleading. I don’t know for German, but for French, when I was a beginner I think I leant a bit too much on the idea plain=tu and ます=vous and overlooked the many differences.

For sure, there is some overlap:

Use vous/ます with strangers.
Use tu/plain form with kids.
This work pretty well (with some exception here and there)

But there are a lot of differences too.

Social position: Ok, this is not a foreign idea. In French too, there is a tendency to use “vous” for someone who has a clear superior status, like when talking to the CEO of your company. But, it’s run deeper in Japanese. It would be utterly weird if an high school student use “vous” to another student just because of a one year grade difference, but it seems to be fairly normal in Japan to use ます with senpai in high school.

The fluidity of plain/ます: That’s the biggest difference.
Did you read the fantastic article about だ・です on tofugu ? This article opened my eyes quite a bit, NONE of the things described in it apply to tu/vous. In french tu and vous is stable, outside of very clear joke, we always either use one or the other with the same person. But I’m noticing more and more that Japanese conversations constantly switch between plain/ます.

I hear this kind of pattern ten times a day at work. Someone is talking as if thinking out loud “I wonder if X…” using plain form. Then right after they’ll say something like “Tanakaさん, what do you think?” using ます. Or when telling something cool to a coworker, that coworker would react “すごい!すごいですね” (first plain form, then です). The idea to switch from “tu” to “vous” with the same person in less than 10 seconds is sheer insanity in French (except for very very clear joke).

Same in reverse, sometimes the best buds in the world are chatting in super casual language, but when one is leaving they say something like 行きますね. Again, the idea to switch to “vous” to your best friend in French just to tell you are going home or something is ridiculous.


Here you are: 中 vs 内: The Difference Between These Two Japanese Words for ‘‘Inside’’.


What are we calling “formal language”?

If you visit Japan as a tourist, you’ll basically use です/ます form all the time.

If you’re living and working there, you’re gonna need to run the full gamut. Plain form for friends, です/ます for strangers, 敬語 for superiors (and customers, if you’re in a customer-facing position)…


Thanks a ton :blush:

I have always said “du” to my bosses at work in Germany. These are at least 6 different people at various jobs. They started to call me “du” and then I started to call them “du” as well. Never had any problems. Cannot imagine the same thing happening in Japan.


Not so sure about German, but my impression while studying German was that the politeness system works the same way as it does in French. The thing is though, obvious, large gaps in social status aside, I think that French tends to work much more on a principle of reciprocity: if someone else starts using the informal forms with you, you can start being informal with them too. However, hierarchy seems to matter more in Japanese, and it may not always be appropriate to mirror someone else’s language use even if you have a similar (but not identical) status by European standards.

That aside, I think that once you get to honorific and humble speech, all the European concepts of politeness become irrelevant because European languages generally don’t have words that inherently lower or raise someone else’s status (beyond “du” vs “Sie” and “tu” vs “vous”, but those are more about politeness and respect than gaps in status), and there also aren’t that many words that express an extra layer of respect to the listener on top of regular polite speech. Japanese has all of those.


Yeah, this is an interesting feature: it’s as though casual speech is ‘no filter’ Japanese, whereas です・ます speech is Japanese with the ‘social filter’ on. I’ve never been in a situation myself where I’ve had to switch forms, but the examples raised in the article were very interesting and made it easier to understand why that happens.

Just one aside though:

Is this common? I’ve never seen this happen before, and I have a friend studying in Japan who told me it felt weird to suddenly switch registers like that. Then again, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt the need to switch, so perhaps I just don’t understand what it’s like.

Then you probably got lucky and had bosses who don’t like/don’t care about formality. Even if someone uses the “du” first, that doesn’t automatically mean that one should use it as well if you don’t want to sound rude, especially at work. Of course the German system isn’t even close to being as complicated as the Japanese formality nuances, but I’d say it’s not as simple as you are making it sound.

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If somebody calls me “du” and a I keep calling them “Sie”, that would sound like they are trying to be friendly with me, and I refuse their effort, which is very rude.

I think there’s a difference between a boss explicitly offering someone the “du”, explicitly saying "feel free to use ‘du’ " and a boss simply using the “du”. Of course it would be rude to continue with “Sie” if you have been offered the “du”. But the safe bet would be to not assume that it’s okay to use ‘du’ just because the superior used it.
But I guess everyone views formality differently^^


Which is why it’s very different than Japanese


To a small extent we do I guess. Generally we use the “honorific” pronoun for people we don’t know who are older than us or in work relationships, i.e. talking to a customer etc., but the customer would likewise use the honorific usually. So that’s similar to Japanese, just not as extreme with the different verb forms and stuff. Exceptions apply. I work in IT and no one would even think about using the honorific pronoun to anyone else in our company, not even to the boss. So basically everyone is in the “in-group” in this case. Same goes for sports clubs. But in other industries that might be different.


I can only talk about the IT industry but like I said in my other post, at least in this industry, everyone uses Du with everyone else. Intern to senior developer to team lead and even to customers, we always use Du.


Good point, it very much depends on what type of work/company we’re talking about! I work in a hotel, and everyone uses “Sie”, even employees who have been there for many many years already use “Sie” among each other, doesn’t matter what position they hold. It’s just the hotel culture I guess.

Thank you so much, I didn’t expect that many replies. It really helped me, so I guess I’m just gonna forget about applying German politeness to Japanese. I already understood that Japanese is a lot more complicated when it come to these things, like using honorable language to someone who is a year above you in school. (Thank you, numerous high school animes.)
And to answer the question from the French people: I think tu/vous is pretty similar to du/Sie. I didn’t learn French nearly long enough to be absolutely sure about that but it would make sense since our languages have the same root. I would even go as far as to say even English natives would naturally know when to use vous/Sie because it’s the same situations you would use words like “sir” or “ma’am”.

Not really important but might be interesting for the language nerds here: There is a tendency to get rid of the honorable pronoun “Sie” in Germany. I would actually go as far as to say that once I’m old the kids will think using “Sie” is some kind of old-people-language. Like I said the train situation and why you would use polite language there completely made sense to me because in Germany it’s the same. Except it isn’t because nowadays it actually depends on the company. If I don’t travel with Deutsche Bahn but Flixbus instead they will call me Du all the time. A lot of companys also got rid of calling their coworkers Sie, Ikea for instance does not call their customers OR their coworkers Sie. It’s casual language all the time. (Which has to do with their image.) Today I myself only use “Sie” now when I want to be extra polite and if the person is over 35-40 years old. But I also went to a school where we would call our teachers by their first names and use Du for them. I think that deeply influenced my understanding of how important honorable pronouns are to be polite. At least to my teachers my actions mattered and not what I said.


Yeah, it’s moving in the right direction. Dutch speakers are already much more casual about it (u and jij). On the other hand, French speakers are still a bit old-fashioned (vous and tu), but the younger generation is also getting more casual.

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