In Haruki Murakami’s 1985 novel “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” one of the two protagonists is a coolheaded data agent working for the monolithic “System” that protects the world from “Semiotec” data thieves. He takes on a job that’s a little too dangerous and finds himself confronted with freelancing goons eager to carve out their own piece of the action.
The goons visit him at his apartment and tear the place apart, yet the data agent remains remarkably polite through the whole ordeal: At one point, however, after they’ve destroyed his whiskey collection, he says, “Hitotsu kikitainda keredo” (「ひとつ訊きたいんだけれど」, “There’s one thing I’d like to ask”). “Kimi-tachi ni kyōryoku shite ‘Shisutemu’ ni uso wo tsuku koto no meritto wa ittai doko ni arundarō?” (「君たちに協力して『システム』に嘘をつくことのメリットはいったいどこにあるんだろう？」, “How the hell would I benefit from cooperating with you two and lying to the System?”).
I can’t help but think: Sōtō nonki na yatsu da na! (相当のんきなやつだな！This is one chilled out dude!) He’s amazingly courteous despite the situation: He asks permission to ask his question. Sure, he could be being sarcastic with superfluous politeness, but I prefer to see it as a lesson to language learners everywhere: It pays to keep your head cool, assess the situation and be polite. For some reason, when speaking a second language, people often panic and forget the ceremony of speech that helps us all communicate.
This is true in all types of situations. If you’re lost in Shimbashi looking for a delicious yakitori restaurant your friend recommended, don’t just jump out and yell, Oishii yakitori-ya wa doko desu ka?! (おいしい焼き鳥屋はどこですか？！ Where is a good yakitori place?) at the closest Japanese person. You’re liable to scare someone.
Instead, take a page from our embattled data agent’s playbook: Sumimasen, chotto kikitain desu ga (すみません。ちょっと訊きたいんですが; Excuse me, I’d like to ask a question.) You can even level up your keigo (敬語; polite speech) by adding the formal “o” to “kiki,” the stem of the verb — o-kiki shitain desu ga (お訊きしたいんですが；I’d like to ask a question).
Then, once the Japanese person you’ve cornered has calmed down after the shock of being approached by a foreigner who speaks Japanese, you can say, Tashika kono hen ni oishii yakitori-ya attan desu ga, wakarimasu ka? (たしかこの辺においしい焼き鳥屋あったんですが、分かりますか; I think there’s a good yakitori place around here. Are you familiar with it?). Use the tashika to express uncertainty (not tashika ni, which expresses certainty) and continue the n-desu contraction of no desu, which serves to add emphasis and provide explanation: I’m sure the yakitori place is around here somewhere? The n-desu helps provide the italics in the previous sentence.
And whether or not the person is able to help you, be sure to acknowledge their answer with Aa, sō desu ka (ああ、そうですか; Ah, I see) and then to excuse yourself for the time you’ve taken out of their day: Shitsurei shimashita (失礼しました; Pardon me). You can, of course, say thank you as well with either Dōmo dōmo (どうもどうも; Cheers) or arigatō gozaimasu (ありがとうございます; Thank you), but many times shitsurei shimashita doubles as a thank you.
If you don’t believe me, just listen to what a Japanese person says the next time you hold a door open for them. The most likely phrase to escape their mouth will be sumimasen (すみません; Excuse me). The language itself may seem apologetic, but the tone is likely thankful. This is just how Japanese works.
Phone calls can also be bewildering in a foreign language. Make sure to speak slowly and clearly (this is a good recommendation even in English!). If you call up a hotel to check or change your booking, don’t just blurt out, Gogo san-ji ni chekku-in shite mo ii desu ka?! (午後三時にチェックインしてもいいですか？！; Can I check in at three o’clock in the afternoon?!)
After you’ve ensured that the telephone operator is listening with a moshi moshi (もしもし, Hello), make sure to state the general purpose of your call: Chotto kakunin shitain desu ga (ちょっと確認したいんですが; ). The verb kakunin suru is a wonderful catch-all with immense utility in Japan: It means “confirm” but can be considered along the same lines of “double checking.”
Then give them some information about yourself: Go-gatsu muika ni yoyaku ga arimasu ga (五月六日に予約がありますが; I have a reservation on May 6). Now the person knows what you want to do and what your current circumstances are, so they are primed to answer your question. Go ahead and ask! Gogo sanji ni chekku-in shite mo ii desu ka? Feel free to formalize your ii to yoroshii (よろしい) if you want to be even more courteous.
It may feel like you’re using ga (が; but) quite a bit, but don’t forget that Japanese has a higher tolerance for repetition than English. Ga acts as much as a softener as it does a conjunction in many situations.
And soft is what we should be going for. No need to panic. Keep calm, go through the process, speak slowly and clearly, and state what your general purpose is before you ask your specific question. Then, carry on.