Emphasis on manners and politeness is one of the key characteristics of both Japanese culture as well as an integral part of the language itself
Beginners generally start with basic phrases like “ありがとう” (arigatou), “ごめん” (gomen), and “どういたしまして” (dou itashimashite), but eventually learn better ways to express themselves in a variety of situations.
In this post, I’d like to focus on the last of these, どういたしまして, which is generally translated into English as “you’re welcome”. For those who are curious (this will come in handy later), the origin of this phrase comes from:
「どう」 (どのように) + 「いたしまして」 (-masu form of いたす, where いたす is a polite verb for する, ‘to do’)
According to this page, this essentially means:
Translated into English:
It wasn’t like [I] did anything (So please don’t concern yourself)
I had learned this phrase during my first few months of study, but years later I realized that I rarely heard Japanese people actually use the phrase. Instead, I would often hear the following:
- いいえいいえ (iie iie)
“いいえ” is literally “no”, but I eventually picked up that this means something like “no, don’t worry about it” or “no, it’s nothing”.
However, just recently I ran across a really interesting Japanese article that talks about how どういたしまして is not always the most appropriate response to ありがとう. I highly recommend reading the article as an exercise to mid-level and advanced students, but I’ll give a brief summary of it here.
While どういたしまして is generally safe to use towards those at or below your level, it can be considered as inappropriate to those above your level, for example those with more experience (先輩) or teachers (先生). By the way, in Japanese we generally call people above our level 目上の人 (meue no hito).
As to the reason why it is inappropriate, the article says どういたしまして is similar to the phrase 大したことはありません, which in English roughly means “It’s no big deal”. This is in line with what we talked about above.
However, if you think about it, saying something that (for example) your boss did for you was “no big deal” could imply the favor was a trivial thing. So you can probably understand how this phrase could be seen as inappropriate. That’s why for those above your level, there are other phrases that are safer to use.
There are seven phrases in the original article, but I’ll just highlight three of them here:
Option 1:「とんでもないことでございます。お役に立てればうれしいです」 (tonde mo nai koto degozaimasu. oyaku ni tatereba ureshii desu)
This is quite a mouthful, so let me talk about the two parts of this phrase.
“とんでもないことでございます” is a formal, but strong way to disagree with something, perhaps translatable as “By no means is that true”. Here, でございます is a polite/formal way to say です. A simpler variation of this phrase (one I have used before myself) is とんでもないです.
“お役に立てればうれしいです” means “I’m happy to have been able to be of use (to you)”
I think that, for the most part, you can use these two expressions on their own, although you may get a greater effect to use them together.
Option 2:「また、いつでも仰って下さい」(mata, itsudemo osshatte kudasai)
This phrase can be literally translated as “Please say (anything) again, anytime”, though this sounds very awkward when translated. You can think of it as meaning “Please feel free to ask me again if you need help anytime”.
Option 3:「お手伝いできてよかったです。」 (otetsudai dekite yokatta desu)
This phrase means “I’m glad to have been able to help”, though it’s good to know that the “have been” tense doesn’t actually exist in Japanese.
Rather than getting confused with all these, I’d suggest picking one (maybe お役に立てればうれしいです), memorize it, and try to use it the next chance you get. The other person might even be surprised by your use of this more advanced expression of politeness.