I have studied 8 languages and found Japanese is the most complicated language.
In Japanese, there are two ways to talk: regular way and frank way. Regular way is based on written grammar. Frank way is made from broken conjugations and slang words. There are three “options” in Regular way: honorific, deferential and polite. Honorific and deferential options are formed by using verb conjugations, and some verbs have different verbs that mean the same thing. Polite way is formed by only using verb conjugations. Many Japanese people including me mix them up and they don’t even know the difference very much.
Regular way is used by newscasters, robots, and computers. It is formal but not so friendly. People who meet the first time should use regular way with 3 options depending on who are older and who pay money.
Frank way is used between who know very well, who are friends and the age is not so differend.
In the airplanes from or to Japan, some attendants who studied Japanese announced in Japanese, and another attendant who didn’t speak Japanese asked me if his friend spoke fluently or not. It is a difficult question, but I usually answer yes with big smile. Yes, he was fluent, but he uses perfect Japanese in American accent. I’m sorry, but he sounded like a robot. If he wanted to “mimic” a real Japanese, he had to speak in regular way in Japanese accent with wrong usage of 3 options. LOL
It was even complicate in my office. I was older than some seniors by 2 or 3 years when I started to work. I didn’t know which way to talk! They were younger than me, but have experiences more than me.
I still remembered that I asked one woman in the same division who was 2 years younger than me and was living closer. One day, we went back to home together. As we talk, we found that we were studying in the same school. So I asked her if I can talk in a frank way, and she said “Y.. Yes, you can. I don’t mind…” but her face looked upset. I found I shouldn’t have asked that. I decided to talk in regular way with options no mattar who they are unless I know their age and how many years they are in the office.
By the way, I have an experience just once that I had a new comer who was older than me. I talked to him in frank way and I don’t mind if he speaks in Frank way. Actually I think I asked him to speak in Frank way.
For your information, 三省堂 ことば百科 has a table about the 3 options.
This post is also available in: Japanese