“Yes, yes” is a sign of attention!
Have you ever noticed that native Japanese speakers say “yes” a lot during conversation? Have you ever wondered why they do that? You have a good point. Well, it's because we Japanese think it would be rude if we did not. As a custom of politeness and consideration toward others, we like to show our attention to you by saying “yes” while you are talking.
Yes, “yes, yes” is a sign of attention – to you! These short responses like “yes” are called 相槌 - あいづち aizuchi in Japanese and are considered a very important active listening skill. So mastering aizuchi is one step toward native fluency! There are many variations to this, but here are five of the most frequently used aizuchi expressions to make speakers feel comfortable while they are talking.
1. Un, un/Ee, ee -うん、うん／ええ、ええ : I'm listening to you, please go on (while nodding your head).
This is the most basic of aizuchi to make any conversation smoother. Many speakers would feel awkward if there is a complete silence every time they stop. So here is the remedy for such situations. If you don't know what to say but want your speaker to keep going, this is the way to show it.
Please note, there is a difference between un and ee in terms of politeness. Un is very casual and thus should be used for friends or someone close to you, while ee is used for any other relationship when trying to be polite yet soft.
2. Heeee! - へぇ～！: Oh, really?! (I didn't know that)!
Saying this word to the speaker makes him or her feel so proud that they will not stop talking! Why? Because it sounds like, “Wow, you're so knowledgeable!” or “I'm interested in hearing you talk more!” The underlying meaning carried with this expression is your surprise to the information given and thus is interpreted in many cases as admiration for the speaker.
Since so useful and effective, this phrase is even found in the book of love (for her, dating chapter) to make men feel more confident and masculine. If you add sounandesune! そうなんですね！which means, “Is it really so!” after the expression, it sounds even more admiring. But please remember: this must be used in the right way. The key is to raise the tone at the end of the expression. Otherwise, it signals the complete opposite: a sign of boredom or indifference.
3. Huun - ふ～ん : I see. (I've learned something new).
This is used to express that the information given by the speaker was something new to you. It is usually used more to show your interest in the topic or information (because it is a different perspective from yours or something that you have never heard of), rather than the speaker's knowledgeability.
This is useful when you understand the speaker's point but do not want to necessarily make a comment. Because of this neutrality and perhaps low enthusiasm in tone, you must be particularly careful with your pronunciation. Again, this word needs to be pronounced in a high pitch (tone) to express your positive attitude toward the speaker, or the speaker might feel offended by your indifference.
4. Naruhodo - なるほど : I see! (I understand it now more clearly/deeply).
This is often used when you come to an understanding of something more complex or in depth. Thus you will frequently hear this word in suspense or detective television dramas when a detective (or CSI) reveals the solution to a puzzle or mystery with their logic.
Similar to this “a-ha!” moment, it is used to show your clearer or deeper understanding of the point or situation the speaker has given in conversation. In short, you are signaling that you fully understand the speaker.
5. Sounandesuka - そうなんですか : Oh, I see… (Now I know your situation).
This is useful to show your empathy toward the speaker, especially when you have heard a complicated or difficult situation from him or her. You may find yourself in a situation where you need to listen to the speaker's problems, complaints, troubles, etc. You feel like you should say something, but you are not sure what to say.
You don't want to say that you fully understand the speaker since you're not in the same situation as his or hers, and yet you cannot just switch the topic abruptly. That is when you use this word sounandesuka (with falling tone). It will at least make you sound like you are trying to show your understanding, and the speaker would appreciate your effort for that.
The Art of Aizuchi: The Art of Communication
Japanese people are notably sensitive to one's feelings culturally and are often careful not to offend others. This culture is strongly reflected in their conversation style. For them, it is a way of etiquette to show their understanding and attention to the speaker at all times. Aizuchi is an integral language to such considerate Japanese people, and whether you can effectively use this aizuchi or not makes a big difference in successful communication.
These aizuchi introduced here are just a handful of examples. The mastery of this art of communication is difficult also for native Japanese. However, when you become fluent in this skill, you will be able to feel the joy of communication in Japanese deeper than ever.
“Aizuchi.” Wikipedia (in Japanese) (http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%9B%B8%E6%A7%8C), retrieved on March 18, 2015.
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