129 - Keigo Japanese - Part IV


I have been working in an office at a Japanese University for almost a year now. I do a lot of OL (Japanese word meaning Office Lady, or secretary, pronounced オーエル) type of work and a bit of English translation and correction. Recently though, my boss has asked me to start answering the phone.

The terror set in.

I have always been terrible on the phone. Even in English I stutter, cut people off when they are speaking and hang up too quickly. Exasperated by this news of having to now do it in Japanese, I quickly started to research Japanese phone etiquette. Big surprise, its mostly keigo!

Good news for me though, (and you!) speaking Japanese on the phone is much easier than English. It is mostly set phrases that both parties expect to be used.

So for our final keigo lesson, I want to show you a simple telephone conversation so you can see how it’s done in the wild. Using all the previous lessons, let’s go through this conversation and review everything that we learned:

OL(オーエル // Secretary):
もしもし、XX会社です。
Secretary: Hello, XX Company.

客(きゃく // Customer):
Customer Name です。Boss Name様はいらっしゃいますか。
This is Customer Name. Is Boss Name there?

OL(オーエル // Secretary):
Boss Name ですね。少々お待ちください。
Boss Name. Please wait one moment.

OL(オーエル // Secretary):
お待たせいたしました。申し訳ございません、Boss Nameは現在外出中で1時頃に戻る予定となっております。
Thank you for waiting. I am sorry to say, he is out (of the office), but he will be back around 1 pm.

客(きゃく // Customer):
分かりました。また、後ほど改めてお電話いたします。
Yes, I understand. I will call again later.

OL(オーエル // Secretary):
申し訳ございません。では失礼いたします。
I apologize for the inconvenience. (Thank you for calling).
Note: This second sentence just means "I'm going to hang up now."

OK, that wasn’t too painful. Was that painful?

Even this simple conversation is packed with a ton of 敬語(けいご) and grammar. Even though these set phrases work well on their own, understanding keigo goes a long way toward being able to understand the nuances of this conversation.


OK let’s start form the top.

OL(オーエル // Secretary):
もしもし、XX会社です。
もしもし、 XX かいしゃ です。
Secretary: Hello, XX Company.
Literally: “hello + XX company + です”

In the first line you see the word もしもし. This word in Japanese is only used on the phone. So please don’t say this to someone in person--that would be weird. It can also be casual, so it’s the standard when answering your cell phone or home phone as well.


客(きゃく // Customer):
Customer Name です。Boss Name様はいらっしゃいますか。
Customer Name です。Boss Name さま は いらっしゃいます か。
This is Customer Name. Is Boss Name there?
Literally: “Customer Name + です。+ Boss Name +honorific ending + there + か”

Next we see the customer states his name and asks if the boss is available. He uses 様(さま)instead of さん to denote more respect. Also, instead of using the standard いますか, for “is he there?” the customer uses the 尊敬語(そんけいご)or honorific form: いらっしゃいますか, which means he is elevating the boss’ status when he speaks about him.


OL(オーエル // Secretary):
Boss Name ですね。少々お待ちください。
Boss Name ですね。 しょうしょう おまちください。
Boss Name. Please wait one moment.
Literally: “Boss Name です + ね。+ a moment + wait + please”

The secretary then responds by repeating the boss’ name and then asking the customer to wait a minute. Of course the standard ちょっと待ってください(ちょっとまってください)is replaced with the much more formal 少々お待ちください.

And when asking someone to do something, you use the 尊敬語(そんけいご): お+ Verb stem +(になって)+ください. The OL uses honorific form because she is speaking about another person’s actions (the customer).

Note: になって is often omitted in these set phrases, especially when used with ください.


OL(オーエル // Secretary):
お待たせいたしました。申し訳ございません、Boss Nameは現在外出中で1時頃に戻る予定となっております。
おまたせいたしました。 もうしわけございません、 Boss Name は げんざい がいしゅつちゅう で いちじころ に もどる よてい と なって おります。
Thank you for waiting. I am sorry to say, he is out (of the office), but he will be back around 1 pm.
Literally: “ thank you for waiting + I am sorry + currently + out of the office + で + 1 o’clock + around + に + return + plan + となって + do”

When the secretary gets back on the phone after a brief pause, she apologizes for making the customer wait お待たせいたしました. You will hear this set phrase all the time; after waiting in line, on the phone, and when they call your name for an appointment. She is using the 謙譲語(けんじょうご)word, いたします in place of します to humble herself when she is talking about her own actions (she made the customer wait).

Next comes 申し訳ございません which is the ultra polite form of ごめんなさい. There are so many ways to say sorry in Japanese, it’s pretty much like the Eskimos having 20-some words for snow. Japanese people are practicallyCanadians.

The tricky part about the end of this sentence is that the OL uses おります when speaking about her boss’ actions. Since おります is the humble form, you wouldn’t normally use it for other people. However, humble form is always used when speaking about people in your “in group.” So when you are speaking about close friends or family members, you would use the 謙譲語 for their actions as well. In this case, since the OL is part of the office group, when speaking to the customer, she uses this form.


客(きゃく // Customer):
分かりました。また、後ほど改めてお電話いたします。
わかりました。 また、 のちほど あらためて おでんわ いたします。
Yes, I understand. I will call again later.
Literally: "I understand + again + later on + another time + call + do"

The customer uses お at the beginning of 電話 to place respect on the object, and to show more politeness. いたします is also used at the end of the sentence to show humility.


OL(オーエル // Secretary):
申し訳ございません。お電話失礼いたします。
もうしわけございません。 おでんわ しつれいいたします。
I apologize for the inconvenience (of calling).
Literally: “I am sorry + お+ telephone + rude”

Lastly we have the phrase 失礼します(しつれいします), which pretty much has no English translation. It literally means that you are being rude for disturbing someone. This is used when you walk into class late, when you sit down at an interview, or even leaving a semi-formal meeting at work. It is another one of those apologies that Japanese people love so much, so let’s just accept it.


Keigo, is hard, I know. There are so many rules on top of rules you have already learned and it can be overwhelming. But I hope I was able to present it in a way that is at least a bit easy to understand. Even if you don’t know all the nuances of why the grammar rules are in place, just know that speaking Japanese on the phone is easy. Use these simple set phrases and you will have people convinced you are fluent in no time!

This lesson was written by Cassy L., a guest contributor:


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