“Keigo” – it’s the single most terrifying word to Japanese language students (after “kanji,” of course). Put simply, keigo (敬語) is a speech style that shows deference to those of higher status. It’s a rather complex but somewhat formulaic system; while it is at first daunting, it is likely that learners will hear and pick up on many key phrases simply through exposure to Japanese work environments. Most Japanese co-workers will not expect their foreign counterparts to know the ins and outs of keigo, especially since many Japanese study it themselves. However, properly using keigo will undoubtedly soften your speech and be appreciated by others.
Here are five essential phrases to politely communicate at work:
1.「恐れ入りますが」“My apologies, but…”
This is technically a kenjō phrase, meaning it indicates your low status in comparison to the listener, and can be used to soften a request. Often, the following request may take time, effort, or consideration to be completed. Opening your request with a line such as osore-irimasuga acknowledges the trouble the other must go through, and the speaker’s appreciation. This phrase should come in handy especially when starting a new job, where reports and projects may require approval by your superiors.
「恐れ入りますが、表の数字をご確認いただけますか？」 = “I’m sorry to take up your time, but could you check the numbers on the chart for me?”
2.「都合がつかないため」 “I’m not available”
Textbooks often teach students 「都合が悪い」 or the simple 「ちょっと…」 to indicate that a proposed time doesn’t work. While both options can be used quite liberally across different situations, switching out 悪い (literally “bad”) for つかない elevates the expression. Because of the addition of ため at the end, meaning “because,” a suggestion for another time or date would be expected.
「都合がつかないため別日でお願いします」 = “Because I’m not available (at that time), let’s find another day.”
3.「時間的な余裕がないため」 “I don’t have time to spare”
Though the English translation of this phrase may not allude to its polite nuance, it is used to state that there isn’t any space time for a new project, an extra lesson, or an impromptu meeting that could be an e-mail. As with number 2 above, the ため at the end means that there should be a follow-up sentence.
「恐れ入りませんが、今日は時間的な余裕がないため、アミさんのレッスンを明後日にしていだだけないでしょうか。」＝ “My apologies, but because I don’t have any spare time today. Would you be able to put Ami’s lesson for the day after tomorrow?”
「スケジュールに余裕がない」 can be used as an alternative phrase.
4.「ご指導いただけませんか」 “Could you please provide guidance?”
Starting at a new job in Japan or in a department means a lot of new things to learn. Rather than a somewhat blunt, “I don’t know about ___, can you tell me?” 「〜知らないので、教えてください」, 「___をご指導いただけませんか」admits lack of knowledge and politely requests assistance in one fell swoop.
「資料の作成方法をご指導いただけませんか？」= “Could you provide some guidance on how to make the materials [pamphlets, documents, etc.]?”
5.「不勉強で申し訳ありません」“I apologize for my lack of knowledge/study”
「わかりません」wakarimasen “I don’t know/I don’t understand,” is probably one of the most common phrases uttered by new foreign employees as rarely is it expected that new comers enter with a vast set of knowledge. Using 「不勉強で申し訳ありません」adds weight and functions as an appropriate apology for the inconvenience not comprehending may cause in a work environment. It can easily be used as a stand-alone phrase.