I have to thank my senior year Japanese teacher for this one. I can’t remember exactly what lesson she was teaching when she mentioned this phenomenon (perhaps it was job-hunting related since several of us were going to graduate soon), but I remember being very surprised at the way そうですね is used to respond to questions – even questions that don’t have a definitely yes or no answer. She said that whenever you are asked a question, the first thing out of your mouth should almost always be そうですね, with a slightly extended そう and ね, to imply that you are in deep thought and considering the question. It’s just the way they do things in Japan, so get used to it and start using it to your advantage. I love using it as a moment to gather my thoughts before I give an answer in Japanese. You can read more in the article I wrote for the Japan Times Bilingual Page earlier this week.
Regular readers may recognize 〜なんですが、 as a very basic エアバッグ表現, one of the most helpful ideas I ever learned in class. This そうですね thing may be the second most helpful.
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Too true, too true. A truly ubiquitous phrase in Japanese. And a lifesaver, more to the point.
I’d always considered そうですね to be あいずち more than anything else – I’m listening, what you’re saying is interesting enough to keep me listening. Never heard it classed as エアーバッグ表現 before though!
Now that I’m trying learn German and keep saying things in Japanese when I’m trying to say something in German, my favourite phrase is あ、そう, as it has roughly the same meaning in German…
そうですね is definitely あいづち. It’s the 〜なんですが that I think acts as a sort of “airbag phrase.”
I know exactly how you feel. Whenever I try and speak Spanish now (learned it in high school), I’m only able to get a few words in before be assaulted by Japanese. It’s the little things especially that come out by accident – けど, が, は. Little things like that.