Learn a magic word in Japanese
To be honest, there is no magic word in Japanese.
But if I were asked to choose, I would say “Sumimasen“. This word has various meanings and can be used in many situations that you should be polite. “Sumimasen.” literally means “it’s not settled.” but can also be used as “I’m sorry.” “Excuse me.” and even “Thank you.”. Let’s see in detail.
When you have done something wrong to your boss, client, stranger or to just about anyone, you need to use “Sumimasen” to apologize. There are several levels to say you’re sorry in japanese. For example, you can say “Sumimasen” when you are 10 minutes late for a drinking party with your client. It’s not a big deal. But when you are an hour late for an important meeting with your client, “Sumimasen.” is not enough. Check the expressions below.
“Makoto ni Mooshiwake gozaimasen.”
This is the most polite way to say sorry. It’s rarely used even in a business situation. When you watch TV you can see a politician or CEO apologizing using this expression with deep bowing.
[Reference: WALL STREET JOURNAL JAPAN (http://jp.wsj.com/public/page/0_0_WJPP_7000-230725.html)]
This is a very polite way or expression to say you’re sorry in japanese. Commonly used for business situations. So when you are an hour late for an important meeting, use this instead of “Sumimasen.”
Used for someone superior, especially in business situation. For not that serious situation.
This can be used by anyone. If you use this to your boss or client, the situation shouldn’t be serious. To your family or friend, use this in serious situation like breaking something important.
Used only among family or friends. Can be used both serious and non-serious situation. It’s sometimes used like “GomenGomen.” which makes the meaning less serious.
If you want to ask something to your boss, client and strangers or to simply start a conversation with, you can use “Sumimasen.” You also can use this when you order something at a restaurant or cafe. If you get on a crowded train you can see senior men who want to get off saying “Sumimsen.” with a strange gesture. This gesture is called “Te-gatana (=Hand sword)”. They do this action to pass in front of someone. But this gesture is not that common so we usually just say “Sumimasen“.
[Reference: Sanseido Web Dictionary (http://www.sanseido.net/Main/Words/Patio/Article.aspx?ai=d330c60d-6db3-448a-8336-842233dfd942)]
What do you feel if someone was kind enough to do something for you? This might sound strange but we feel kind of guilty, so we use “Sumimasen.“.
We have another word to say “Thank you.” It’s “Arigatoo.” or “Arigatoo Gozaimasu.” The second one is very polite so you can use this to your boss or client.
So it’s up to you which word you want to use. I think I’m a typical Japanese and we tend to use “Sumimasen.” most of the time.
“Sumimasen.” may be the word you hear most in Japan. But once you know its various different meanings, it will sound easier. This is a polite word to master so no one gets annoyed if you in the middle of an unsuitable situation. Don’t hesitate to just use it!
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