Uncool 相槌 – はいはい

If there were a God, I would ask it to bless the Internet. The Internet is the reason I haven’t lost as much Japanese as I could have over the past six months. When I got back to New Orleans in June, I went on Mixi, the Japanese social networking site, and put up self-introductions on the forum for every Community that was vaguely New Orleans-related. Saints communities, college communities, Jazz communities – if you look closely, you’ll probably find me there.

This effort has yielded results! In July I heard from a Japanese college student who is crazy about the Saints. He was visiting New Orleans to go see training camp. Would I want to meet up? Hell yeah! Thus, I found myself driving out to the Saints practice facility in Metairie at 6AM, speaking Japanese with Shohei. We watched practice, basked in the Yat-ness of the proceedings, and Reggie Bush walked straight up to where we were standing during the autograph session. It was most excellent.

Later, I heard from Aki who was moving to town with her husband, a French public servant who got transferred to the consulate in New Orleans. Would I want to meet up for coffee? Of course! So we started meeting for coffee every few weeks. The luckiest part is that she is the most talkative Japanese person I’ve ever met. She’s constantly losing track of the conversation topic and saying things like, “This is totally unrelated, but…” or “I forgot what I was saying, but…” Not that she’s ditzy; she just has a lot to say. I don’t mind at all. Just keep the Japanese coming.

We met up in November before I took my trip to Japan, and she was telling me a story about a Chinese woman who worked in her office in Japan. The woman’s Japanese was good, but she had a few quirks, one of which was the phrase はいはい, which she used indiscriminately as an 相槌 (あいづち) whether it was with the company president or with Aki. Not only did she double the standard phrase はい, she also added a slightly flippant-sounding tone (which I can’t find an example of online). “HAIhai” is how I would try to express the tone. Aki was telling me the president would get annoyed with the usage but never corrected the woman. Aki was thrown into the role of caretaker and tried to correct the usage, but it never took.

At the time I thought this was nothing more than a funny story, but when I went to Japan a few weeks later, I was having dinner and drinks with a friend –an older businessman, so I was on my best です/ます behavior – and I caught myself はいはいing! Dammit! My tone wasn’t as dismissive as the way Aki was producing, but I think it was still a little casual. Immediately I shifted back to a single はい and kept a close watch on my usage the rest of the trip.

The realization reminded me of this sign I often see in New Orleans:

The goal of learning a foreign language is to be able to use it naturally and smoothly, which means not having to consciously watch yourself all the time. At the same time, if you internalize mistakes, you’ll end up using them without realizing it, and in Japan it often goes uncorrected. Thanks to Aki I caught myself. (Also, I did have one friend correct me on my trip when I was saying 計算する instead of 量る for my weight, so there will be times when they will correct you.)

The moral of the story? Maintain vigilance. And ask folks to correct you. They’ll still hesitate to do so, but every now and then you’ll get a nice bit of help.

The second moral of the story? 敬語 isn’t just being able to say the right honorific or humble words. Sometimes it’s not saying certain words that are casual. Refrain from はいはい, ちょっと, and ハァ? sez the Japanese Internets. Also, as long as you use です/ます consistently and avoid too many んでs, そうやでs, and other contractions, you’ll be able to schmooze your way into the confidence of most folks in Japan.

(In other news, while writing this post I learned that はいはいする means to crawl from a YouTube search.)

9 thoughts on “Uncool 相槌 – はいはい

  1. I think I internalised that one as being “bad” as I learned it… almost certainly from some manga.

    「はい」は一回!(Followed by the appropriate sound effect for someone being hit by a parent or guardian.)

  2. Somehow I had already internalized はいはい as flippant and impatient-sounding. OTOH I’m seriously failing to read the context to understand those English signs. Is the top sign like a graffiti someone wrote challeging the bottom one? I don’t get it.

  3. I could have told you based on instinct that the tone of HAIhai was casual, but I don’t think I’d heard anyone verbalize the fact that it was bad practice.

    Leo – The signs are interesting. The intersection is a bus stop, but the No Parking sign on that pole was either lost or stolen – it’s gone. I imagine that there were a lot of people who parked there, so someone put up a hand-painted replacement. The “Think you might be wrong” sign has popped up all over New Orleans – I’m prepping a post about it for the other blog I write. I always thought it was a specific reaction to the parkers at that one intersection, but it’s up all over town. I always considered it a plea for more imaginative thinking.

  4. The Chinese speaker story reminded me that as far I remember in Chinese its common to double such expressions (as a lot of languages) as an intensifier or reinforcer. Turkish Gule-gule (smiling smiling) for a farewell could be an example. So perhaps she was guilty of native language/Japanese overlap there.

    In my limited experience haihai is ok depending on who is saying it to whom and when as id often the case with Japanese but with most if not all languages. I would imagine a Japanese obaachama responding to your enquiry as to it being ok if you sat down there or did whatever, the response of HAIhai would be fine.

    as for haihai suru..its for toddlers or babies crawling towards parents to ‘greet’ or say hello. But I have heard that being used ‘ironically’ by some qasi-hip Japanese for ‘drop by to say hello’ or ‘put you face in at a social event briefly’

    as a end note I was often party to conversations formal and less in Japan where it seemed that no repsonse at all (other than judiciously placed aidzuchi) was totally acceptable if not de rigeur. Baffling at first but understandable in the end dependent again upon context and the ambient sonkei level

  5. Daniel, I just wanted to say, as an intermediate Japanese language learner I really enjoy your posts about Japanese usage (although I enjoy them all, just these in particular). I find them both entertaining and educational. I especially love it when you take a word and analyze its usage and relationship to other words, or how it contrasts with similar ideas in English…for example the somewhat recents posts about 悔しい and 復習. Anyways, this is just to say, keep it going!

  6. By the way, it seems like I’ve often also heard “はいはい” used on TV shows (my main source for spoken Japanese these days, for better or worse…) when someone has to answer the door or come serve a customer in a shop, like 「はいはいちょっと待ってね」sort of thing. It’s not usually rude sounding but more like a “crap, my apron straps are caught/I’m just getting out of the shower but be right there!” sort of vibe.

  7. Saibancho – I hadn’t considered the Chinese language connection. That’s an interesting way to think about it.

    Dave – Thanks for the kind words. I wish I had time to write more about Japanese (and read and watch more Japanese books/comics/TV to get the material to write about), but school has kept me busy. I have a list of topics I plan to write, so please keep checking back.

    And I think you’re both right to a certain extent. Haihai doesn’t have to be a rude phrase, but sometimes it is. It depends on the context and tone of delivery. It’s better to restrain yourself in front of the 社長. As long as you are careful about how flippant the tone is, it could even be useful in business situations.

    Here’s what Facebook friend Aki says: “As you say, はいはい may bring good effect in casual situation, if someone need to show his 共感. Even in business using ‘*with smile* はいはい’, it’s useful and easy to things go well.”

  8. Reminds me of my time in Japan volunteering in a home for handicapped people. I got into the habit of responding to requests from my co-workers with a はいはい as well. They luckily were not shy to correct me: はいは一回!To Japanese ears it sounds flippant and unwilling, something like an eye-rolling ‘yeah, yeah’. Signalling obedience/understanding, therefore a single はい is the only way…..

  9. gah! i heard はいはい being used by a japanese linguistics professor at several times during an interview… but he didn’t sound very flippant or patronizing, he seemed open and engaged by the interview…. or maybe i just can’t pick up on certain subtleties.

    great blog though, just found it!

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