A long time ago when I was first starting a career path, I would at times attend various workshops related to career development. One of these workshops that I remember was for women teaching them to rid their speech of “feminine speech patterns.” These speech patterns consisted of phrases such as “I think” and “I believe” and phrases such as “isn’t it,” which seek agreement from the listener. Other patterns were frequent apologies and self-effacing language. All of these speech patterns were to be avoided as they tended to keep women “in their place” and prevented them from “getting ahead” in the business world.
Later when I embarked on a second career, I was taught that using words such as “I think” or “I believe” was improper “hedging.” I can still hear voices of instructors saying, “No one cares what you think!” According to the conventional wisdom of my career, it was important to sound confident, even (and maybe especially) when one was not! Otherwise, one would not be taken seriously. In writing, one was to avoid passive voice, except in very particular circumstances. I also learned in other places, such as church settings, that it was important to be direct with one’s speech. Indirect speech was said to be manipulative.
As I have discussed on this blog and on others, I am currently studying Japanese. I have found it interesting that in Japanese, all of these “feminine” speech patterns that were drilled out of me in the West are all matters of ordinary politeness in Japanese.
In Japanese, it is frequent to end thoughts or sentences with qualifiers such as, to omoimasu (“I think”) or ne, (a sentence ending particle that seeks, or even assumes, agreement by the listener). Not only does one frequently apologize in Japanese, but there are many different levels of apology. The informal apologies, gomen or gomen nasai, are used all of the time, and it is polite to end a communication with a superior (or even with an equal in polite circumstances) with shitsurei shimasu, an apology meaning “I am committing an act of rudeness.”
In Japanese, self-effacing speech is considered the norm and to do otherwise is considered arrogant and rude. One never uses an honorific to refer to oneself, one’s own household (to another outside her household), or one’s company or in-group, but always uses an honorific to refer to others, unless one on very intimate or friendly terms with the other. There are different words in Japanese for “to give” based on the social position of the giver and the receiver. Kureru is to “give down” to one socially below and ageru is to “give up” to one socially above. When speaks of giving something to another, one uses ageru and when one is asking to be given something by another one uses kureru. One only uses the word jouzu, meaning “skillful” or “good at” to refer to someone else. To use jouzu for oneself sounds prideful and arrogant.
Passive voice is common in Japanese and is particularly used when one is being polite. As a general rule, speech that is passive and indirect is considered more polite than active and direct speech. For example, if one must refuse a request, it is common to do so with a simple chotto (“a little”) without completing the sentence. This means the request is a little….(inconvenient, difficult, impossible, etc.).
It is interesting that the speech patterns that are considered “feminine” in English are part of everyday Japanese, and to omit them would be seen as rude or arrogant. While Japanese does have speech patterns that are seen as more masculine or more feminine, I believe that the patterns I have mentioned are just a part of ordinary common courtesy in Japanese.