Language | WELL SAID

Watch what you say when offering your boss a coffee

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Kōhii o meshiagarimasen ka. (Won’t you have a coffee?)

Situation 1: Eric Sere and his girlfriend, Yuri, are watching a video at his house on a Sunday afternoon.

エリック: コーヒー、飲みたい?飲みたかったら入れるよ。

ゆり: うん、飲みたい。あと、何かちょっと食べたいな。 お菓子があったよね。

Erikku: Kōhii, nomitai? Nomitakattara ireru yo.

Yuri: Un, nomitai. Ato, nanika chotto tabetai na. O-kashi ga atta yo ne.

Eric: Do you want a coffee? If you want, I’ll pour you one.

Yuri: Yeah, I want one. Also, I want a little something to eat. There are some sweets left, right?

Speaking to your superiors in Japanese is much different from speaking to people you are close to. In the above conversation, Eric asks his girlfriend if she’d like some coffee. Since they’re in a close relationship, he can use the simple expression 飲(の)みたい, which is made using the masu-stem of a verb (X) with たい on the end. The X-たい construction indicates a want or desire.

When asking a similar question to a boss, teacher or someone considered “superior,” using the X-たい construction is much too informal. The slightly more polite X-たいですか also won’t do, neither will using more formal verbs as in コーヒーを召(め)し上(あ)がりたいですか (Would you like a coffee?).

In Japanese, asking superiors about their desires or abilities in such a direct manner tends to be interpreted as violating their privacy and are therefore avoided. Instead, it is more common to make a suggestion on the matter:

コーヒーを召し上がりませんか (Won’t you have a coffee?) or コーヒーはいかがでしょうか (How about a coffee?)

Similarly, when asking our superiors about their abilities, a question like “社長(しゃちょう)はゴルフができますか” (“Hey boss, can you play golf?”) is not the way to go. Instead, try “社長はゴルフをなさいますか,” which uses the honorific verb なさる and has the effect of sounding like, “Do you golf, sir?”

Situation 2: After watching a video, Eric makes dinner.

ゆり: あ、これ、食べたかったんだ。エリックは料理が上手だね。

エリック: 前に、ゆりが食べたがっていたのを思い出したんだ。

Yuri: A, kore, tabetakatta-n-da. Erikku wa ryōri ga jōzu da ne.

Erikku: Mae ni, Yuri ga tabetegatte-ita no o omoidashita-n-da.

Yuri: Oh, I wanted to eat this. Eric, you’re good at cooking.

Eric: Cause earlier you said you wanted to eat it, I remembered.

Using the masu-stem of a verb (X) with たがる on the end expresses someone else’s desire, or that they wanted to do “X.” However, this pattern shouldn’t be used to show a superior’s desire. In that case, it is better to point out that the desired object is simply liked: “お菓子(かし)がお好(す)きです” (“You like sweets”) or “本(ほん)を読(よ)むことがお好きです” (“You like to read books”).

Another example of this can be found in Sere’s remarks in the Bonus Dialogue.

Bonus Dialogue: Mr. Sere is at a party being held for one of his university professors, Mr. Yamashita, who has recently retired.

セレ: 山下先生(やましたせんせい)、お料理(りょうり)もう少(すこ)しいかがでしょうか。

山下: そうだね。じゃ、ちょっといただこうかな。

セレ: 先生は中国料理(ちゅうごくりょうり)がお好きだっておっしゃっていたので、この店(みせ)にしたんです。先生は、最初(さいしょ)の授業(じゅぎょう)で、ご自分(じぶん)の自己紹介(じこしょうかい)の時(とき)に、そうおっしゃっていました。

山下: ハハハ、よく覚(おぼ)えているね。

セレ: お仕事(しごと)をおやめになって、今(いま)はどんなことをなさってるんですか。

山下: 絵(え)を描(か)いているんだ。絵画教室(かいがきょうしつ)に通(かよ)っているんだよ。

セレ: ああ、先生は絵をお描きになるんですか。

山下: うん、実(じつ)は学生時代(がくせいじだい)からやっていたんだ。ほら、これは市(し)の展覧会(てんらんかい)に出品(しゅっぴん)したんだよ。[スマホの写真(しゃしん)で絵を見(み)せる]

セレ: わあ、すばらしいですね。充実(じゅうじつ)した毎日(まいにち)をお過(す)ごしなんですね。

Sere: Professor Yamashita, how about a few more dishes?

Yamashita: Oh, yes. Well, I’ll have a bit more.

Sere: You had said that you like Chinese food, so we chose this restaurant. When you were introducing yourself during your first lecture, you told us so.

Yamashita: Ha ha ha, you remember it well.

Sere: What kinds of things have you been doing since you left your job?

Yamashita: I’ve been painting pictures. I’m been attending a painting class.

Sere: Ah, you paint pictures?

Yamashita: Yes, in fact I’ve been doing it since I was a student. Look, these (pictures) were displayed at a city exhibition. [Shows him photos of pictures on his smart phone.]

Sere: Wow, that’s fantastic. What an enriching way to spend your days.