Sunday, May 6, 2012

So close, yet so far away

They're close friends (he didn't add a "san")
In Japan, how to address people correctly is a very important thing. Generally, the polite way of addressing people you know is with the last name, followed by "san". There are some varations on this with "san" being substituted for "chan" or "kun" which suggest some degree of affection ("chan" is mostly used for girls and "kun" for guys, but they can be used for both sexes). But generally speaking in a work setting, if you call people by their family names and add a "san", you can't go really wrong as it's usually better to err on the side of politeness than the other way around.

Among private friends it's much more relaxed. Calling someone by their family name and "san" is not really wrong, but can be seen as a little too polite and putting some distance between you and said friend. For really close friends you can drop the courtesy suffix alltogether and even call them their first names (although this should be agreed upon beforehand as it could possibly offend some people if they don't consider themselves as close friends as you thought...).

Last night, I met up with my old buddies from the previous consulting job, the Boy and Luke whom long-time followers of this blog might be familiar with since previous posts. The Boy was on a temporary visit back to Tokyo so we squeezed in a dinner to catch up on stuff and share some old jokes about the insanity of the office we lived through in the consulting world. The Boy shared a story that I found quite amusing and I will do my best to retell here.

His older sister got married to a Japanese guy a few years back. The Boy has been getting along well with his brother-in-law, sometimes meeting up for dinners without the sister and generally striking up a friendly relationship. All these years, The Boy has been addressing his brother-in-law with the polite form, calling him Murata-san while in return being called by his first name only without any courtesy suffix. This can be seen as somewhat acceptable as the brother-in-law is older than the Boy and as he's married to the Boy's older sister he does not need to extend the same courtesy to the Boy.

However, during a dinner they had together hanging out, the Boy had started to feel a little weird about addressing him as "Murata-san" as it creates a feeling of distance and the Boy thought that by now they had become such good friends that he could do a little more relaxed approach. So he very politely suggest to his brother-in-law that maybe he could start addressing him as "big brother"  (onii-san お兄さん) instead if he would be ok with that. He was met with a few seconds of silence, a cold stare followed by "No, I prefer if you address me as Murata-san". Awkwardness followed and the conversation never really recovered after this for the remainder of the dinner as the Boy's attempt to close the gap between them had been quickly shut down with no room for negotiations.

Let that be a lesson to you all.

(Does anyone know how to get rid of the double-line breaks that seem to be the default in blogger now since recently... It's really annoying me...)


Chris said...

I will never make that mistake Mr Salaryman san...I mean sama...Salaryman sama :)

kathrynoh said...

Wow that's really cold. What happens then? Does your friend bring it up again in a couple of years time and risk being rejected again or does he still with the name-san forever?

Couldnt care less said...

Try shift+enter mr san.

shadowzach00 said...

knowing my luck i well make that mistake >_<

kamo said...

It's for this very reason that I avoid addressing my brother-in-law by name at all. Though one of these days I might wade straight in with 'Ko-kun' just to see what happens. He's about five years older than me, what could possibly go wrong?

I write most of my stuff in Word and C+P across. That double spacing thing is a pain in the arse when I have to edit in blogger, but a little fannying around with the html editor usually sorts it. I'm far from an expert though, as you can probably tell.

TheOctopus said...

I find myself in the slightly bizarre position of addressing my brother-in-law as "onii-san" even though he's a few years younger than myself.

TheGhost said...

The title thing here in Japan is a wonder to me. I really don't see the point of it all. Adding Mr. Mrs. when I say a person's name is a little weird; unless it is a very formal event or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

its japan is a weried country =)

Persianxrose said...'d think it'd be the other way around since he married the guy's sister. Do brothers do the whole, better not break my sister's heart or else...ordeal...or are they just relieved the girl didn't turn into a Christmas Cake?

Mr. Salaryman said...

Chris - Hey, we've been blog-brothers long enough now, we can drop all the courtesy ;)

Kathrynoh - We'll see, he felt that he had been shut down now for a few years at least...

CCL - Thanks! I'll try that!

Shadow - Yeah, I suggested that the Boy maybe should have gone with "Murata Onii-san" to soften it before going straight to "Onii-san" but too late now

Kamo - Yeah, go for the jugular! He might just write it off as you not catching on to the subtelties of Japanese though and let it slide?

Octo - Why do you do this to yourself? Skip the Onii-san and go straight for first name without any courtesy suffix and see if he takes the challenge!

Ghost - I can see what you mean, but that's just how the language/culture is built, some countries have more layers of courtesy than others, no?

Persian - Probably not as much as in some countries, at least not to older sisters

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