In the flow of a conversation, there are many times when we will make a brief interjection such as “oh really?” or “is that so?” in response to something the other party said. These are typically not used to express any deep meaning, but rather simply to indicate that we are listening and understanding what is being said. They may also indicate mild interest or surprise. Such remarks can be as basic as “hmm” or a simple grunt, or even non-verbal with a nodding of the head or other body language.
In Japanese these types of expressions are called 相づち (aizuchi) and are generally more frequent and important than they are in English. This can be seen by the fact that the word 相づち itself is pretty well known by Japanese people, whereas the equivalent term of this in English is “back-channel”,a linguistic term that you’ve not likely heard before. In several sites I have seen 相づち translated as “chiming in”, but from how I have heard that word used the meaning is quite different.
So why focus on these? Odds are that most of us studying Japanese will become good listeners way before we are good speakers, and being a good listener requires proper 相づち. Even if you aren’t understanding what is said completely, you can at least acknowledge you’re doing your best to pay attention. Without proper interjections like this, the other person will end up feeling like they are giving a speech.
Here is a list of some common 相づち:
- ええ [with flat intonation]
- うん [Can sound like a simple grunt]
(Express mild to great surprise, depending on tone of voice and length)
- ほう [used by mostly older men]
- ええ [with rising intonation]
One thing to keep in mind is that 相づち typically indicate that person is understanding, but not necessarily agreeing to what is being said. This can be a problem particularly in business talks between foreigns where misunderstandings can occur, and have bigger repercussions. There are other expressions which more clearly indicate agreement, such as “その通り” and “賛成”.
相づち is not something you’re likely to hear much of watching anime and TV dramas. For that, you need real Japanese conversation between real people. A good example of this is this science podcast, which has a guy named BJ who backs up the main speaker with a great variety of 相づち. He doesn’t always speak in the most polite language so be careful if you try to imitate him. For example, he might say そうか instead of そうですか。
For those interested in word origins, つち means “hammer” and the word 相づち comes from the practice of two metalworkers hammering in alternation. The process of alternatively interjecting phrases is compared to this, and this process is described by the phrase “相づちを打つ”, where 打つ means “to hit”.
That just reminded me – the lyrics for one of my favorite Japanese songs also contains the line “相づち打つよ”, but I’ll leave the details on that for a future post.
Really good humorous video about this from some ペラペラカナダ人 I ran into online this week.