“Desu/Masu” and “Da” Days

I’ll say one thing that may seem strange at first to Americans. In America, our manner of speaking is relatively the same to our co-workers as it would be to other people. While it’s expected to be more polite to superiors, and especially our boss, our way of speaking doesn’t really change all too much, right? In Japan, it’s incredibly strange (I know I said earlier it may only be a little bit strange). It took me years to even notice that people do this. I have to hear the same worker talk differently to different people. Doesn’t sound too strange so far, does it? The Japanese businessman is competely aware of their relationship with each worker. Essentially, if the worker is younger, they talk differently to them. They can be a bit more trite to a younger worker. A Japanese learner will recognize a lack of usage of “desu/masu” type words in their speech. In school, I only learned practical usage of this type of form. We learned of the less polite “da” form. And instead of a mutual respect in the language, the younger person has to use desu/masu even though his senior fellow will only be using “da” form.

And actually, it’s not even a matter of impoliteness. We are taught that “da” is less polite. But it’s actually the only way that this senior worker could respond. Why is that? To respond with desu/masu would be to respond with a way that does nothing to indicate relationship. This is extremely ingrained in the language; it’s perhaps a stem of the culture. I remember talking with a Japanese university student who was writing an essay in English. One part in his original Japanese version of the essay was to mention about a club member, and how she was his junior. I have students in junior high school who write essays with similar content. These topics tend to come up when talking about clubs, interestingly. As for my friend, instead of saying that that girl was another teammate, or a fellow club member, he felt it necessary to say that she was, in fact, younger than him, by calling her a junior. A Japanese person is always conscious of who a certain person is to them. Is that person their wife? Those two people can both talk using “da” form. “desu/masu” would indicate distance. It’s not about being polite when you’re married…that’s what it sounds like, right? That’s why it can’t be about being polite. If I feel completely comfortable with a person, I don’t need to sound stiff. I can be myself. Friends never talk to each other using this form of politeness. In fact, if you did, would you even be friends?

This was one mistake I made. I so wanted not to lose a friendship with a particular Japanese person that I used all of these super polite grammar forms. I thought that there was no way he could deny our friendship if I was being friendly. But weren’t we friends, anyways? He may not have been able to shake the notion that I was using those grammar forms for other reasons. He may have thought that it’s basic Japanese to talk in a certain way, and maybe I wasn’t following the “code” that was so obvious to a native speaker. There’s usually forgiveness for this kind of thing. For example, I had a Japanese person who I didn’t know say to me, in English, “Please lend me your pen”. It was stiff. It actually presumed that I had another pen, or else she was going to recieve the pen I was still using. In America, we would say something more along the lines of, “Sorry, but do you happen to have an extra pen?” or “Could I borrow a pen from you?” The latter is actually better to say in Japanese as well. In fact, the “kudasai” form for “please” in Japanese is quite stiff. There are other forms that are much more appropriate to be polite. One might be similar to, “Sorry, but could you be troubled to do me the favor of lending me your pen?” If all that goes to “Please lend me your pen”, there is certainly something lost.

Consequently, if you want to distance somebody without saying something direct, you can use the desu/masu form. If you’ve already been using the “da” form with them, this tactic may not work. And I also hesitate to call this a “tactic”, as it is part of the language/culture. While many foreigners hate when Japanese people can’t just say “yes” or “no”, there are sometimes benefits to indirect ways of speaking. This is one of them. Whether or not it’s terribly polite is one thing, but it is something that can be considered.