CONTRIBUTED BY JANNINE MYERS
I recently spent an afternoon at a Japanese hair salon and as usual, I took the opportunity to talk with my stylist about anything and everything, all the while throwing in a few Japanese words and phrases wherever possible. I didn’t have to speak Japanese at all as my stylist spoke English very well, but I wanted to at least try.
As our conversation progressed, my stylist shared with me an experience she had had when she was much younger and just learning to speak English. She was in Hong Kong at the time, and at a medical clinic hoping to find some relief for the vomiting and nausea she had been experiencing. When it was finally her turn to see the doctor, she felt relieved. It soon became very clear however that the only way she and the doctor were going to be able to communicate was via English, the only mutual language they both had some grasp of, but he more than her. So when he asked her how she was, she was delighted that she could understand him, but frustrated that the only way she knew how to reply to this question was to say, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?”
We both laughed as she shared this story, and she went on to explain how most Japanese people, when learning English, are always taught to respond to “How are you?” with “I’m fine thank you, and you?” That got me to thinking about my previous years in college and my time spent studying Japanese. I too, was only ever taught to reply to “Genki desu ka?” (How are you?) with “Genki desu, anata wa?” (I’m fine, and you?).
So, on a mission to find you some alternative responses and the appropriate circumstances in which to use them, I sought help from one of my reliable sources, Yoko Nishihara, aka long-time family friend. I asked Yoko how you would give a “negative” reply when someone asks how you are, and if it is culturally acceptable to use such responses in most situations. Here’s what Yoko said:
Generally not, but there are some exceptions, like when you don’t feel well and you need help, or if someone inquires a little further because they are concerned that you don’t look very well. In that case it would be fine to say:
“Actually, I’m not feeling so good.” “
“Jitsu wa amari choushi ga yoku arimasen.”
A negative reply is generally also acceptable when addressing family and friends.
To friends and co-workers (semi-polite), you might say:
“Actually, I’m not feeling so good today”
“Jitsuwa, kyo wa amari choushi ga yokunai desu.”
“I feel terrible.”
“Totemo kibun ga warui desu.”
“Ma ma desu.”
“I’ve been better”
“Nantoka genki desu.”
Yoko shared some even less formal phrases that one might use when addressing immediate family members, but I figured we’d be safer to stick with the semi-formal options. And for those of you who are less capable at pronouncing Japanese words, it might be safer still to go with “ma ma desu.” You can’t really go wrong with that, but just remember that the “u” at the end of “desu” is often silent. So give it a go; the next time one of your Japanese friends asks you how you are and you’re really not feeling that bright and cheerful, surprise them with one of these “practical” phrases that you’ve just learned.