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Are you listening to me? The Japanese art of aizuchi

Aizuchi (相槌) is an important part of communication in Japanese. It consists of all the grunts and interjections that show that a person is listening. When one is speaking, the other will say things similar to uh-huh, yeah, right, okay, I see, I get it, gotcha, sure, right on and so on in English.

You're not listening!
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Linguists call these backchannel responses and they’re used in all languages. But in Japanese, they’re absolutely relentless. As the listener in a conversation, you can get as tired of talking as the speaker.

Studies show that Japanese listeners interject with aizuchi two or three times as often as English speakers do. That’s a lot of uh-huhs and oh yeahs.

How to say ‘Yup I gotcha’ in Japanese

The most common aizuchi words are hai, un and ee (pronounced like ‘eh.’). Hai is the most polite and is used when you’re talking to someone of higher status. Un and ee are more casual.

Although we all learn on page one of our Japanese textbooks that hai means yes, it doesn’t mean you’re agreeing. It just means that you’re listening. This can cause serious confusion when Westerners and Japanese communicate because it sounds like the Japanese person is saying yes all along and then suddenly saying no, it’s difficult, or sucking in through their teeth and putting their hand to the back of their head, which is Japanese body language for, ‘No way in hell, sorry.’

You’ve got to be kidding me

Sou desu ne and sou desu ka are aizuchi phrases that mean something like, ‘Oh, really?’ But these are a soft ‘oh, really.’ You’re not expressing disbelief but just saying something along the lines of, ‘That’s interesting.’ Sou desu ka in particular sounds like an expression of disbelief, but as aizuchi it isn’t.

Word up

Naruhodo, which translates roughly to the English ‘of course,’ is another aizuchi word. It’s used when a point is driven home or to express hearty agreement. I like to think of it as the Japanese equivalent of saying, ‘Word.’ It could also express surprise an astounding revelation that the speaker just opened your eyes to.

The world is lonely and quiet without aizuchi

What happens if you don’t use aizuchi? Chances are, the speaker will think you’re disengaged, uninterested, strangely distant, or a foreign person who doesn’t know about aizuchi yet.

If you’re talking on the phone and you don’t use aizuchi, the speaker may start frantically shouting ‘moshi moshi!?‘ thinking you’ve hung up on them or the line has been disconnected. This is why the phone conversations you overhear in public are so maddening: ‘Hai… hai… hai… hai… un… un… sou desu ne… un… hai…

Practicing aizuchi

As with all things Japanese language related, the best way to learn is by paying attention. Listen to how listeners keep the conversation going with their grunts and interjections, and then try it out yourself. The person you’re speaking to will appreciate it.

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