Japanese Language: in-group and out-group

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.

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9 Comments on “Japanese Language: in-group and out-group”

  1. arunlikhati says:

    It’s a similar situation in Vietnamese and Khmer. Aside
    from the social politics about how to decide what second person
    term to use, the third person involves a sometimes awkward
    triangulation between the status of your relationship to the third
    person with that of the person you’re talking to. On the occasion
    when friends refer to me in the third person as nó—a term reserved
    for dear intimates, people of much lower status, animals and
    objects—I am always caught off guard, if I even realize they’re
    referring to me. I’d like to think it’s because they reflexively
    see me as quite dear—but they might just be putting me down
    offhand. In Khmer, it’s even more complex because common actions
    have several variants that alternate depending on who is doing the
    action and what their relationship is to the speaker. As I’ve
    become more involved in the community, I’ve become painfully aware
    that the much higher forms of respect—for serious VIPs—are almost
    completely beyond my vocabulary. It sounds quite complex here, but
    in practice and with some experience, it usually flows quite
    effortlessly. When I’m unsure, I usually reflect on certain
    relationships and episodes in my life, and what terms are exchanged
    in these contexts. I then tentatively guide my speech

  2. Charles Adamson says:

    I really good example of how confusing this can be is a
    time when I was at Japanese Immigration renewing some paperwork. I
    used the work ‘kanai’ in reference to my wife and was scolded by
    the clerk who said I should use ‘okusan’. I was really confused
    because ‘kanai’ is the word that you normally use when talking
    about your own wife and ‘okusan’ is the respectful word you use for
    someone else’s wife. I could not understand why he scolded me, so I
    asked him what the problem was. He said that I was in an official
    Japanese government office and I was a ‘gaikokujin’, a foreigner,
    so I had to use respectful language in regard to all Japanese,
    included my wife. To make it even more confusing, most Japanese
    have told me that they do not agree.

  3. Doug M says:

    Hi guys!

    Arun: Now that you mention, I once studied Thai in college briefly, and remember the subject of pronouns and social hierarchy come up as well. That comment about the “triangulation” is right on the money!

    Charles Adamson: Welcome to the JLR! Yeah, that’s a strange case you encountered. I’ve always used the term tsuma for my wife and on this last trip had no issue trouble with Immigration in that regard. The immigration fellow asked me if I was staying at my wife’s parents’ house (奥さんのご実家) or something like that, and I stammered back the self-humble form (はい、妻の実家です) and got a smile and that was it. I am not an expert, but I’ve had some confusion over the word kanai in particular, so maybe that was it. Or, that particular clerk was just, well, different. I’ve met Japanese who were the exact opposite too: so laid back that it caught even me off guard. Takes all kinds I guess. ;)

  4. Robert says:

    I think it’s a complex idea to grasp especially for Westerners in a relatively flat rather than stratified society, where you can now be on first name terms with bosses, VIPs etc.
    I have a book about respect language by P.G. O’Neill which uses complicated diagrams to show relative status and level of speech depending on the situation. Talking about a third party depends on relative status, group, whether they are present or not and who you are speaking to. (@_@?)If you factor in cultural indirectness I start to get lost. (for instance my wife never directly asks me to make a cup of tea for her, she will always ask me if I want a cup of tea and expect me to intuit that she wants one)

    In my Japanese family things seem a bit more relaxed. お isn’t used in お父さん for example, and what surprised me was my wife is called by her first name without さん by my nephews. I think they do the same with me actually. Outside the family certainly my wife has the standard range of plain, polite and respectful speech.
    I think because I started learning in a classroom and most of my Japanese friends are women my default language is at least neutrally polite and it’s plain language I have to think more about.
    With immigration officials I find it easier to not speak Japanese to them if I can.
    (on an unrelated note, at Dublin airport recently I was pleasantly surprised that the official greeted my wife with a friendly こんにちは)

    I remember being told by a teacher that some (many younger?) Japanese women don’t like kanai 家内 with its implication of a woman sequestered inside the house and she preferred 妻.

  5. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Robert! You really said it: Western languages tend to be flat, not stratified (which is neither good nor bad, just different), and things can get complex when dealing with something like Japanese or other such languages. Cultural indirectness is still something I am poor at, but gradually learning I hope. My wife is more direct with me, but maybe only because I am somewhat dense. :)

    My wife’s family is similarly laid-back, though being the in-law, I tend to err on the side of caution anyway since I like them and like to stay in their good-graces.

    Good point about the use of 家内 vs. 妻. When you look at the kanji, it totally makes sense. :p

  6. JACKIO_63 says:

    Don’t be so hard on your self, at least you didn’t set of the F’ BOMB like you did on your web site…LOL!

  7. Roger says:

    I read this article, and also the comments with great interrest.
    While it is totally true, that not using polite or respectful language when others expect to do so, can be very embarassing, the opposite is true too.
    I am not married to a Japanese woman, and so I do not have the sight into family life. But I was very active in boy scouting and this is how I came into contact with quite a few Japanese people, male and female. Many of this friendship last over more than two decades. Although I had other connections to Japan as well, some dating back even into my childhood, it is only a couple of years ago, that I finally took the step to start learning the language. The language that I long time thought of being “impossible” to learn at all.
    Long story short: I have quite a couple of Japanese friends, mostly 20 years and longer. But its only a roughly 4 years that I started to learn the language.
    Now obviously I started to try to speak with my friends in Japanese. And yes, I always do so in -masu and -desu style. It is what I learned first.
    Obviously my friends do not really have a problem with the fact that I use -masu and -desu style a lot, or nowadays fall back often into that style. But one of the most heard comments is, that it sounds so strange for them to not just use plain style, because it gives them an artificial feeling of distance. A distance we do not have anymore when we talk in English.

  8. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Roger, and welcome to the JLR!

    I couldn’t agree more: it’s a tricky balance learning to be polite when you should be, and relax the throttle when around friends. I am still learning both ways myself. :p

    But one thing I’ve noticed is that it does depend on the friends. I noticed some friends are pretty casual with me, and some friends whom I’ve known a long time, are still a bit more formal just due to personality. Takes good listening skills (work in progress for me) and flexibility I guess. :D

  9. Doug 陀愚 says:

    @JACKIO_63: You are silly. ;)

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