I haven’t done a pyramid style list for a Japanese word in a while (not since “Power Up Your ちょっと” to be specific), so I thought that I’d do one for the word そう. I’m referring to the そう used to confirm a question from someone else.
A quick example for those unfamiliar with the term:
And now the pyramid:
そうよ。 *for women and womanly types only
そうでござる。 *for people acting in 時代劇 only
The real point of this post is to introduce that last phrase – さようでございます. In very polite situations, そう turns into the slightly longer and more polite さよう. You can follow it with です for a standard keigo phrase.
さようでございます is up for debate on Goo in this post. The spirited first responder claims that it may be grammatically correct, but that he/she did not use it in interactions with customers because そう is so much clearer and less formal. He/she notes that keigo was initially used to distinguish between different class levels, and that overly polite keigo could be viewed as condescending or even insulting.
The second commenter comes to the same conclusion as the others and says that 1) grammatically it’s not a problem, 2) さようです is keigo enough on its own, and 3) just like many bits of language, it comes down to personal preference.
One interesting distinction made by commenter four via a link is that さようでございます is natural when used as emphatic agreement with someone, but very unnatural when used as an 相づち as そうですね so often is. The same link claims that さようでございます has come into more frequent usage because it makes old people feel special, and given the increasing increase in old people, this phrase only becomes more useful.
The first time I remember hearing it was over the phone when I was booking JAL tickets. The phone lady was so nice and patient with me and answered all my worrisome little questions with cheerful versions of さようでございます. At first I wasn’t sure what they were saying, but then it set off bells in some deep memory from a Japanese class and I vaguely remembered learning it.
That said, because of its high level of inherent hoity-toity-ness, さようでございます can also be used in an ironic way in much the same way that 遠慮します can. Steve Martin knew how to take advantage of this kind of humor, and in Japan, the manzai group Hibiki has made a career out of どうもすいませんでした (the line comes at 3:07). In all honesty, and I believe my teacher mentioned this, it’s a phrase that you should recognize but never feel obligated to use. A bit of keigo here and there is fine, but don’t be a keigo otaku.