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How To Greet People

In Japanese, as in every other language, what you say and do to greet people depends on the time of the day and the person you're greeting. See below table.

ohayooh-hah-yohhgood morning (informal)
ohayo gozaimasuoh-hah-yohh goh-zah-ee-mah-soogood morning (formal)
konnichiwakohn-nee-chee-wahgood afternoon
konbanwakohn-bahn-wahgood evening

Just saying "hi" is impolite. If you haven't seen someone for a while, ask O-genki desu ka (oh-gehn-kee deh-soo kah; How are you?) as well.

When others ask you how you are, you can say Hai, genki desu (hah-ee, gehn-kee deh-soo; I'm fine), but if you want to sound a bit more sophisticated, you can say Hai, okagesamade (hah-ee oh-kah-geh-sah-mah-deh; Yes, I'm fine thanks to you and God) or Nantoka (nahn-toh-kah; I'm barely managing things in my life or I'm barely coping). These two expressions sound modest and mature to the Japanese, although they sound pretty negative to American ears.

English speakers make a habit of asking everyone, friends and strangers alike, how they are, even if they know that the person is fine. Asking this question in Japanese is different. O-genki desu ka is a serious question about a person's mental and physical health.

Paying attention and saying so

When someone says something to you or gives you a piece of information, you can't just stare back. You must nod. You can also say a, so desu ka (ahh, sohh deh-soo kah), which means "Oh, really?" or "Oh, I see." Or you can just say a (ahh) as you nod to convey the same message. By doing so, you acknowledge the information given. If you don't do it, your conversation partner may begin to think that you're upset or rude.

Saying good-bye

When you leave a friend, say ja, mata (jahh mah-tah; see you again). If you're parting for a longer period, you can also say sayonara (sah-yohh-nah-rah; goodbye), but don't use this option if you'll see the person later the same day.

When you bid farewell to your boss or teacher, say shitsurei shimasu (shee-tsoo-rehh-shee-mah-soo). Shitsurei shunasu literally means "I'll be rude." How do you get "good-bye" out of "I'll be rude"? It's as if you're saying "I'm being rude by leaving your presence."

Expressing Gratitude and Regret

Phrases of gratitude and apology are the most essential phrases in any language. Suppose a stranger holds a door open for you when you're entering a building. What do you say? Suppose you accidentally step on someone's foot. How do you say "I'm sorry"?

You may know the word arigato (ah-ree-gah-tohh; thanks), but you may not know that you use it only when speaking to family, friends, coworkers, subordinates, or strangers who appear easygoing and younger than you. When thanking a teacher, boss, stranger who looks older than you, or stranger who looks as if he or she isn't so easygoing, say one of the following phrases instead:

The easiest phrase of gratitude is domo - an adverb that literally means "indeed" or "very much" but can be understood as "thank you." You can use this short, convenient, yet polite phrase of gratitude in any context. If you want to express a greater-than-normal degree of gratitude, use one of the longer phrases. To reply to a compliment, say Domo (dohh-moh; Thank you) or choose one of the following modest phrases:

To apologize for something you've done or for causing someone pain or inconvenience, say Domo sumimasen (dohh-moh soo-mee-mah-sehn; I'm very sorry). In an informal context, Gomennasai (goh-mehn-nah-sah-ee; Sorry) is just fine.

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