“Keigo” – it’s the single most terrifying word to Japanese language students (after “kanji,” of course). Put simply, keigo (敬語（けいご）) is a speech style that shows deference to those of higher status. It’s a rather complex but somewhat formulaic system; while it is at first daunting, it is likely that learners will hear and pick up on many key phrases simply through exposure to Japanese work environments. Most Japanese co-workers will not expect their foreign counterparts to know the ins and outs of keigo, especially since many Japanese study it themselves. However, properly using keigo will undoubtedly soften your speech and be appreciated by others.
Here are five essential phrases to politely communicate at work:
1.「恐（おそ）れ入（い）りますが」“My apologies, but…”
This is technically a kenjō phrase, meaning it indicates your low status in comparison to the listener, and can be used to soften a request. Often, the following request may take time, effort, or consideration to be completed. Opening your request with a line such as osore-irimasuga acknowledges the trouble the other must go through, and the speaker’s appreciation. This phrase should come in handy especially when starting a new job, where reports and projects may require approval by your superiors.
「恐（おそ）れ入（い）りますが、表（ひょう）の数字（すうじ）をご確認（かくにん）いただけますか？」 = “I’m sorry to take up your time, but could you check the numbers on the chart for me?”
2.「都合（つごう）がつかないため」 “I’m not available”
Textbooks often teach students 「都合（つごう）が悪（わる）い」 or the simple 「ちょっと…」 to indicate that a proposed time doesn’t work. While both options can be used quite liberally across different situations, switching out 悪（わる）い (literally “bad”) for つかない elevates the expression. Because of the addition of ため at the end, meaning “because,” a suggestion for another time or date would be expected.
「都合（つごう）がつかないため別日（べつび）でお願（ねが）いします」 = “Because I’m not available (at that time), let’s find another day.”
3.「時間的（じかんてき）な余裕（よゆう）がないため」 “I don’t have time to spare”