So, you feel oppressed by the Japanese honorifics? You feel they make you speak in a subservient, obsequious manner? You’re slightly nauseous whenever you have to bow? You feel ridiculous, using all those verbs that suddenly get longer and longer and longer, while you could just as well say the same thing using half as many words? Not to mention, shorter verbs? And what’s the deal with the polite language anyway? Can’t we just all get along (insert “wah wah wah”)?
Well, BAM, you’re linguistically incompetent, at least as far as Japanese is concerned. I’ll now proceed to tell you why, in excruciating detail.
First off, let’s split it up!
(Of course, it would be best to read it all)
1. If your first language doesn’t have polite forms at all, like English, Hebrew or Chinese, etc.
2. If your first language has got some polite language, like French, German, Polish, etc.
3. If you’re just really fed up with all this.
1. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
There are no languages that haven’t got any forms that can be classified as polite. Haven’t you ever said “sir”, or “I’m sorry, could you…” or called professor Wang 王老師(1)?
The point is, in Japanese the polite forms are much more diverse, much more complicated (although not half as complicated as you’re likely to be thinking right now) and much more ubiquitous.
Also, just because there’s more of them, it doesn’t mean that the Japanese are more polite or that their language is more polite. This is very counter-intuitive, but in fact, the more of the polite language you use, the more likely you are to stop feeling that it’s so very polite. In other words, with increased use occurs a marked subjective devaluation of the politeness level expressed by the a priori polite words. Thus, because you are not at first used to too much honorifics, you might feel that they are in fact very polite and make you sound obsequious when they do not, and when they are not perceived like that at ll by the native speakers.
Quite the opposite.
By using more honorifics, paradoxically, the speaker establishes his or her position as the superior one. Nowadays, the honorifics are a clear signal of the speaker’s high status, high level of education and his or her ability to recognize the situation as requiring the use of honorifics, which suggests that he or she knows how to interact within the society, which is generally considered a very desirable skill.
Sachiko Ide(2) in her book 『わきまえの語用論』introduces the research she conducted on female office workers. Unsurprisingly, or surprisingly if you’ve got no clue as to how things really work, the women with higher position in a company would usually use higher and more elaborate honorific forms than their subordinates. That sort of usage sends a clear signal that roughly is equivalent to the following statement: “My manners which indicate my social position are superior to yours. Therefore, I am the boss here”.
From the the usage patterns you can observe on your own, if you ever attend a university in Japan, is the typical polite way in which professors talk to their students. The students on their part of course use the masu/desu forms, but are never quite as polite as the teachers(3).
Something I observed during the dialect survey last week was that the interviewers, especially above the level of doctoral student, would use much higher honorifics than they dialect speakers and other interviewers.
Also: whatever Ruth Benedict wrote, no matter how accurate it was and it wasn’t wasn’t wasn’t, she wrote it more than a half century ago. You wouldn’t really use, let’s say, USian textbooks from the 1940 to conduct research on the current social issues in the US, would you?
Finally, the masu/desu forms are not used to indicate respect or any such ludicrous sentiment, but the degree of familiarity and psychological distance. All this frankly ridiculous drivel about respect and such comes from the earlier and entirely not cool era of Japanese history(4).
Another thing is that by using too much honorifics you can sneakily go around insulting people as much as you like. Good luck! And get rid of that martyr complex, seriously. It makes you look stupid.
2. So, your language’s got all those polite forms, so you think you don’t really have to learn anything, apart from the appropriate conjugations?
Chances are high that in your language, the polite forms solely depend on the kind of addressee you are talking to. There are fixed polite forms to use when speaking to you teachers (pan profesor Kowalski), customers (moechten Sie vielleicht…) and so on. And while there are indeed many rules concerning the sort of situation you are in and the sort of words you are permitted to use (like, you are not allowed to swear in front of your grandmother, or in public places(5)), the more important factor is usually the addressee. For instance, once asked to use only your boss’ name, you can continue using only her name, even in rather formal situations, such as conferences, as well as rather informal, such as parties.
This is by no means the case in Japan.
Obviously, addressing your boss by only her name unless asked to is absolutely unthinkable, but even if given permission, you are still not allowed to do so on formal occasions. And by “formal occasions” I mean mostly anything that is more formal than a drunken revelry, or a nice evening klatsch in a cafe.
The thing is, even couples are often required to address each other by their family names and the appropriate title on a bit more formal occasions, such as work-related gatherings, or at the university during classes.
Best friends will switch to the most polite, most elaborate honorific forms without hesitation in their official work-related e-mails.
Disregarding those conventions may lead to serious miscommunications and faux pas, even though you thought that because your language had a separate set of polite forms you would have no problems with mastering the Japanese ones. This is not the case.
3. Here, a vid :) At least you will now know how to use waribashi.
(1) Sorry, don’t have simplified Chinese font installed right now!
(2) Sachiko Ide, Wakimae-no Goyouron, Taishuukan 2006.
(3) Unfortunately, this depends largely on your field of study. In general, at any given university, history and Japanese history professors are bound to speak more politely than the Japanese language faculty. Linguistics professors are even less polite, and the “worst” of all are the science professors. At my university, everyone at the Astronomy Department, from the lowliest first year to the most dignified professor emeritus (that may be a slight exaggeration) speaks using the plain form, but that may only be a purely pragmatic decision made because of the amount of foreign students they’ve got over there.
(4) Some time ago, there was a Japanese linguist who suggested that the entire system of honorifics in Japanese, whose conjugation doesn’t depend on grammatical person and that often omits personal pronouns, was originally intended to indicate the subject and object of the verbs. The honorific meaning was supposed to be secondary. Sadly, I am currently at a loss as to the whereabouts of the post-it with the linguist’s name =_=
(5) Unless you want to be rude, obviously.