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Small Talk In Japanese

Small talk helps people get to know one another. This section presents some common small-talk topics.

Breaking the ice and asking questions

Small talk usually starts with sumimasen (soo-mee-mah-sehn; excuse me). You use this word to break the ice. Then you usually need to ask a few questions to strike up a conversation. If you can form a sentence, you can easily form a question in Japanese. Unlike in English, you don't have to invert the subject and the verb when you ask a question in Japanese.

How you form a question depends on the answer you're expecting. Are you expecting "yes" or "no," or are you expecting a specific piece of information, like a name, place, or date?

To form a yes/no question, just add the question particle ka (kah) at the end of the statement and use a rising intonation, as you do in English. (See Chapter 2 for more on particles.) For example:

  • Jon wa kimasu (John wah kee-mah-soo) means "John will come."
  • Jon wa kimasu ka (john wah kee-mah-soo kah) means "Will John come?"
To ask a question that expects specific information in response, use a question word in addition to the particle ka at the end of the sentence. Just like in English, different question words are used depending on what's being asked, as shown in below table.

Question Words
Question WordPronunciationTranslation
daredah-reewho (informal)
donatadoh-nah-tahwho (formal)
doredoh-rehwhich one
ikuraee-koo-rahhow much

You can use these simple ice-breaking questions to make small talk:

Talking about the Weather

The tenki (tehn-kee; weather) is a universally neutral topic. On a clear day, try starting a conversation with Ii tenki desu ne (eee tehn-kee deh-soo neh; It's nice today, isn't it?). The following adjectives describe temperature and humidity:

In a polite/neutral or formal context, add desu (deh-soo; to be) to the end of the adjective. Adjectives always sound polite when they end in desu. For example, you can say Atsui desu (ah-tsoo-ee deh-soo; It's hot) or Atsui desu ne (ah-tsoo-ee deh-soo neh; It's hot, isn't it?).

You can also work these nouns into weather-related conversations:

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