7 polite phrases foreigners aren’t supposed to know

One of the joys of learning Japanese is seeing that shocked and dumbfounded look on native speakers’ faces when you fire off a difficult word or phrase that even they probably wouldn’t have come up with. You get to smile snobbishly and think to yourself: Ha! you didn’t see THAT coming, did you!?

But this simple pleasure reveals a problem for us Japanese learners. The reason it happens is because of how insultingly low expectations are in Japan for foreigners to gain true mastery of the language. Japanese are by and large very congenial toward foreigners, but getting people to take you seriously in this country is a high, high hurdle.

So what should we do? I say let’s take the fight to them! I’ve selected 7 polite/advanced Japanese expressions for this article that native speakers won’t see coming. Use these babies to let Japanese know you’re more than just another kawaii gaijin! You are super-gaijin!

1. 恐縮ですが

[kyoushuku desu ga…] Getting what you want through humility? Yes, it’s possible in Japanese. The idea is to be so polite and endearing that people won’t be able to refuse you.

恐縮, taken literally, means something like “to shrink in fear of causing any unpleasant feelings”. It comes in handy when making requests for assistance or information.

I’m terribly sorry to trouble you with such a silly question, but…

2. 光栄に存じます

[kouei ni zonjimasu] Literally “to think of something as an honor”, this is a real whopper of a way to say thanks when you’ve received gifts, praise, or gratitude from a Japanese person.

I’m honored that I was able to be of assistance.

3. お言葉に甘えます

[o-kotoba ni amaemasu] Take this one to the izakaya with you! In a country where offers and suggestions are almost expected to be refused, this splendid phrase gives you a free ticket to make a Japanese person walk their talk. So if they tell you to order whatever you like, pop them a それでは、お言葉に甘えます and get the most expensive thing on the menu! (but remember it’ll probably still be 割り勘 when you’re done)

お言葉 means “your words” and 甘え means something like “expressing your affinity for someone by letting them spoil you”.

(Note: the concept of 甘え is something very non-western and deserves a better explanation, fortunately there’s already an English-language wikipedia article about it)

4. お見知りおきを

[o-mishiri oki o] Meaning: “please remember me”. We don’t really have an equivalent phrase in English, but this is a very polite line sometimes heard in personal introductions. The ください that would logically come at the end is usually omitted.

My name is  〇〇. I’m looking forward to getting to know you.

5. ご無沙汰しておりました

[go-busata shite orimashita] 無沙汰 means “going a long time without visiting or corresponding with someone”. The ご makes this phrase more polite, as does the おりました instead of いました. This is a useful phrase for getting back together with someone you haven’t written to or spoken to in a long time.

I’m sorry that I haven’t contacted you in such a long time.

6. 御機嫌よう

[go-kigen you] Probably the easiest phrase on this list to actually use, 御機嫌よう is a sophisticated and polite greeting and parting phrase (that means it can be either “hello” or “goodbye”, similar to aloha). It literally means “may you be in a good mood”. (Note: よう here is a form of 良い)

If you read manga or watch anime, you’ll notice that this is the greeting word of choice for rich and high-class characters.

7. 冥利に尽きる

[myouri ni tsukiru] 冥利 is a kind of divine providence or fortune, a blessing of happiness that comes from having some role or position in life. 尽きる (in this case, at least) means “to be at the highest point”. Put it together, and you get a phrase that expresses attaining the highest level of happiness that can be derived from a role/position, probably because something good just happened to you.

It’s so awesome being a foreigner!

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