Japanese Language: in-group and out-groupPosted: January 7, 2011 | Author: Doug 陀愚 | Filed under: Japanese, JLPT, Language | 9 Comments »
I thought I’d touch on a subject that recently got me in trouble while here in Japan: the notion of in-group and out-group. This is a linguistic and cultural concept in Japan, and possibly other East Asian cultures as well (not 100% sure), whereby there’s a stronger sensitivity to who’s in your “group” (miuchi 身内 in Japanese) and who’s outside. This is not to imply an “us vs. them” attitude, though! Instead, I believe it’s more of a Confucian-inspired influence where people try to be humble when describing their own “group” to others, and respectful to those outside the group. This concept doesn’t really exist so much in English, at least American English, so it’s really hard to grasp and has gotten me in trouble.
The notion of “in-group” or miuchi is fluid too, so it can change depending on the situation or who you’re talking about and to whom. If you are talking with your sister about your mother, you would use respectful language (maybe), but if you were talking about your mother to someone entirely outside your family, your mother is now in your “in-group” and you would use humble language to describe her instead. If you didn’t it would sound terribly arrogant.
Another example: if you were talking about the CEO of your company to a co-worker, you would use respectful language, but if you were talking about your co-worker or CEO to someone outside your company, they are now in your “in-group” and you would have to use humble language.
Likewise, when talking about the listener’s CEO, mother, whatever you have to be careful to avoid humble or excessively informal language or this can be rude. Again, the point here is to show respect to the listener, while downplaying one’s self. Here’s where I made the mistake.
So, recently, while sitting with wife and mother-in-law, I mentioned to my mother-in-law that my father-in-law had explained something already. But, the way I said it was wrong. I said: otōsan ni oshiete morattan da (おとうさんに教えてもらったんだ) . My wife immediately jumps in and sharply said “moraemashita”, which is the more formal past-tense version of moratta. I caught the mistake immediately and tried to cover up, but it was too late. Thankfully my mother-in-law has been very understanding over the years with my Japanese, and doesn’t get mad, but my wife was visibly annoyed though.
We talked later and she explained that while her parents like me and are pretty understanding, I was talking about my father-in-law before his wife, so I had to use polite language instead. She felt there wasn’t any real harm in what I said, simple mistake, but she wanted to make sure I fix that habit before I really screw up the next time.
I know from experience to use respectful language when talking to complete strangers, but as I get to know Japanese people, I start to get confused where the line is between polite and more friendly, informal Japanese. Some of this takes a lot of experience and sufficient living in Japan, and I lack both. But it’s definitely an important lesson to bear in mind.
As my wife explains it, when talking to my older sister-in-law, it’s perfectly fine to be casual (unless talking about her parents, as explained above), but still refer to her as o-nésan (お姉さん) instead of her name. For my wife’s friends, it’s also sensible to be respectful when first meeting, but ease into more informal chatting as we get to know each other. If they’re noticeably older (i.e. old enough to be your older-brother or sister), you should be a bit more respectful though, see below. For one such family we know very well, the father is about 10 years older than me, so my wife recommends I still be somewhat respectful to him.
My wife’s parents, despite knowing them pretty well for the last 6 years are a somewhat different matter. Firstly, they’re a generation older, and my wife reminded me that people who are older, even a little older, need to be dealt with more respectively as the age difference increases. Second, although I am part of the family now, when they are the listener, I should be respectful when talking about other people in the family since the “in-group” now is my own flesh-and-blood relatives, not the in-laws. Again, as explained earlier in the post, the notion of “in-group” varies depending on who the listener is.
I think people who live in Japan eventually figure this out, and Japanese are certainly understanding about foreigners who at least make a sincere effort, but any effort to really understand the culture and the importance of age and in-group will make your Japanese sound that much better, and make you that much more approachable. Language isn’t just grammar and vocabulary, it’s about learning how to interact with people in any culture. Some people are naturally more adept at this than others, but anyone who’s sensitive to people around them will surely make wiser choices in how they communicate, and make more friends I believe.
Advice from a big fuck-up like myself.
P.S. This is also a good reminder that learning polite language, or keigo is a good investment of time, but it’s also crucial to remember that keigo is like a fine spice: used sparingly and when it helps.