That’s What All the Ladies Say

My understanding of だろう and でしょう are tenuous at best. I remember being puzzled by these when I took my first Japanese class – an intensive summer class, which I would not recommend (slow down, everyone, you’re moving too fast).

Two encounters have shaped my understanding of these phrases. Today, encounter one.

I was up in Fukushima, I think during my first year as a JET, watching TV. There was a small variety show where a host was interviewing different celebrities who came out one by one. After the host asked a few questions about the kind of work they did, the audience had to guess the celebrity’s annual income. One of the people on the show was パックン – Patrick Harlan, a Harvard grad who parlayed English teaching into Japanese study into fame as a manzai comedian. I don’t remember exactly what the host said to Pakkun, but he responded with a highly suggestive でしょう, which got a lot of laughs. I immediately noted the tone of his phrasing and added it to my mental catalog of funny phrases to use.

It felt like he was confirming something, just as you would with ですね, but this something was overly obvious and a little silly. A phrase you could substitute it with is the equally laugh-inducing よく言われます – literally, and extremely awkwardly, “That is often said about me.” I guess the English equivalent would be, “That’s what they all say.”

The tone on でしょう here is important – it’s slightly inquisitive with the hint of a smile. Amirite? でしょう?

11 thoughts on “That’s What All the Ladies Say

  1. My imperfect understanding is that でしょう it, in iself, a tentatively affirmative word: it says, “This is what I think,” but seeks the agreement of others, or at least indicates that the idea would be strengthened by such. This plays out in a few interesting ways:

    1.) When someone else has already said something that you agree with, and especially if it’s something you’ve already made clear you agree with, “そうでしょう!” or even just “でしょう!” can be appropriate. In this case, it’s usually stronger than ですね because it emphasizes not just agreement but that it’s an opinion that’s personally held and not just something that strikes you as true upon hearing it.

    However, this use also has a kind of a feminine overtone in my mind. Maybe it’s because men more often use the less formal だろう, or maybe it’s because the agreement-seeking nature of the word is viewed somehow as more feminine. This definitely leads to opportunities for jokes, as you can imagine.

    2.) The next place you see it is in analysis and forecasting, or similar situations. When you get the raspy-voiced middle-aged financial expert talking shop on a TV or radio program, chances are you’ll hear at least a few でしょうs. In this case I think everyone agrees that what he’s saying is probably correct, but either because of the degree of uncertainty or just for the proper element of modesty, it’s stated with a qualifier. I’d usually translate this as “probably.”

    3.) Finally (and this is a kind of a scary one for those of us well-acquainted with this stick’s sharp end): the scolding でしょう/だろう. In this case, it’s usually used in an argument, with something that’s obvious preceding it. Now, nominally it’s seeking agreement, but because of the obviousness of the statement it makes it sound like the person being spoken to is a moron. So has the effect of humiliating or demoralizing the opponent in the argument. An example of this came from a woman of my acquaintance recently complaining about her roommate (not present at the time) for the latter’s lack of personal hygiene. She was saying (in words she wished she could say out loud to her roommate), “あんた女でしょう?!” (An’ta onna deshou?!) The sense was clearly to imply that her roommate either hadn’t realized the fact or else was not behaving as a woman ought. This mode of argument is pretty common. It’s also used with children in the same sense, but less bitingly (because in that case it can just be a way of gently leading the listener; I guess this is also a factor in the ‘analysis’ bit mentioned above).

    So, again, the unifying sense in my mind is, でしょう・だろうis an opinion seeking affirmation. When your opinion is the best (or as good as anyone’s), that basically means “probably,” but it can take on additional flavor depending on the context.

  2. To add an anecdote to the discussion: a former boyfriend criticized me (in a helpful but firm way) for using this too often. Although I had been using it in hopes of cultivating a sense of togetherness, he said it made me sound pushy. Since then I have stuck to using it as an affirmation of an opinion offered by someone else, rather than for seeking affirmation of my own opinion… I think, however, that intonation has a lot to do with how it is perceived.

  3. Great comments, guys. I don’t want to step on my post for tomorrow too much (encounter with でしょう・だろう numero dos), but I’m of the opinion that they have a flexible range of meaning, especially because intonation can be used to add an invisible か to the end of the word. I don’t think it’s always seeking approval…this I’ll get into tomorrow. It’s often used to state something that is nearly certain, such as effective human beings should maintain good hygiene. Very interesting to think about the pushy/scolding aspects of the phrase.

    And, DBP, one sign that you should be writing your own blog is when you write comments longer than the actual posts. でしょう? ;o)

  4. I’m with Julia. Ex girlfriend told me that overuse of だろう made me sound pushy. Then again sometimes I am pushy, so it may have been appropriate in the circumstances.

  5. Hey, I didn’t mean it that way – long comments are fine. It was just a friendly nudge that hey, you’ve got plenty to say. Why not claim your space on the web?

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