When speaking to a Japanese friend, you may have noticed them nodding and making small interjections as you speak. In linguistics, this is called “back-channeling,” and while it’s an important part of Japanese culture, it may seem odd from a foreign perspective. For some people it may even be annoying — they may wonder, “Why does this person keep interrupting me?”
Let’s see how back-channeling started in Japan and what back-channeling means for Japanese people.
In Japanese the word for back-channeling is aizuchi (相槌). Let’s break the word up and just look at the meaning of the individual kanji (chinese characters):
- aspect, mutual, inter-, physiognomy, each other, minister of state, phase, councilor, together
- hammer, mallet, sledge(hammer), gavel
In pre-modern Japan, two smiths would often work together to forge a sword. First, one smith would strike the molten metal with a hammer, then as that smith raised his hammer to strike again, the other smith would take a swing, allowing the smiths to forge the sword swiftly and efficiently. This rapid succession of alternating strikes is the origin of the term aizuchi (相槌), meaning something like “mutual-hammer.”
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), a master samurai and his apprentice would fight standing face-to-face, practicing sword-forms in an alternating series of strikes similar to the way sword-smiths forged their weapons. Eventually the word came to mean a constant back-and-forth rhythm in conversation as well, and today aizuchi 相槌 is primarily used to refer to linguistic “back-channeling.”
Here are a few examples of common aizuchi:
- Sou desu ne / sou da ne / sou ne / sou da yo ne / da yo ne / sou nan da : I see; oh really.
- sou desu ka / sou ka : Is that right? Is that so?
- hontou? / hontou ni? : Really? Seriously? For real?
- E! / ee! / a! : Exclamatory sound.
- naruhodo : I see; I understand; Got it
- tashika ni : Certainly; that’s right; if I’m not mistaken; if I remember correctly.
- ii desu ne / ii ne : That’s good! Nice!
In Japanese back-channeling is generally used to show that the listener is paying attention to the speaker, and the above are some of the most common phrases.
However, aizuchi can also vary according to the situation, and the term can also include longer, more conversational responses. Let’s take a more detailed look at this longer kind of aizuchi in few different contexts.
To show agreement, Japanese people often back-channel, nodding and interjecting as the other person speaks. Usually this is just a short response like the aizuchi listed above, but this kind of back-channeling also includes longer responses.
(Back-channeling is in bold and may overlap with the other speaker’s lines):
B: Yesterday I stepped on a piece of broken glass in the street.
A: Seriously? Are you okay? Did you get hurt?
B: I tried to pick it up, and I cut my finger.
B: I couldn’t leave broken glass on the street, someone else could get hurt, you know?
A: Yes, I would do the same if I were you. Please take care of your finger.
Back-channeling can also be used to show that the speaker understands their partner and is on their side.
A: What’s wrong? You don’t look so good.
B: (Sigh) This is outrageous. Yesterday my boss yelled at me for something that wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t argue with him.
A: I’m sure you just need to explain yourself more.
B: I don’t know how to get rid of this frustration.
A: It’s natural to get frustrated, don’t worry. This kind of thing happens to everyone!
3. Tell me more!
Aizuchi are also used as a signal to develop the current topic.
A: Hey, you look happy today. Any good news?
B: Guess what? I’m seeing someone!
A: Oh, Really?
B: Well, I met her at a hanami party last spring, and we’re going out for dinner tomorrow.
A: That’s wonderful! That is such good news, you look so happy, and I’m happy for you!
B: Hey, did you know that today’s math class is cancelled?
A: Seriously? Why?
B: Do you remember how Mr. Lane was coughing terribly yesterday?
A: Yeah, I remember that.
B: Apparently he caught the flu, so he’s taking a few days off.
A: Ohhhh… So we don’t have math class tomorrow either?
B: Yes, that’s right.
Now you know a few of the reasons Japanese people back-channel so often. To reiterate, aizuchi are short interjections used to show that the speaker:
- Is listening carefully
- Is sympathetic
- Wants to know more
You now know why many Japanese people back-channel, and hopefully you’ve got a grasp on the way the meaning of aizuchi can change depending on the situation.
If you’re speaking with a Japanese person and you notice that they keep interjecting, try to take it as a positive! They’re just trying to show their interest and curiosity.