On Saying Maybe in Japan

call_me_maybe_1I hate passive aggressive behavior. I might have moved to the wrong country, because Japan is full of passive aggressive people.

In some ways, Japanese people are passive aggressive because their language mandates it. Japanese love their word tabun. It’s my least favorite Japanese word, and, admittedly, I use it out of spite sometimes.

Tabun translates pretty fairly to “maybe” in English, with a slightly positive upswing. So if a Japanese person says, “maybe,” they usually mean it with a positive connotation. So, “Maybe you should change your shirt,” means something more like, you should probably change your shirt. However, it maintains the flexibility of “maybe.”

So, it works like the Japanese “get out of jail free” card. “Maybe you should change your shirt (because it’s too colorful), but I mean, I’m not saying you have to, except you really, really should, but I didn’t tell you that.” is more of what the Japanese word tabun conveys. They give you advice that you most certainly should follow, but absolve themselves of all of the responsibility of giving said advice.

If it’s really hot, I get “are you hot” a lot, because I’m sweating through my shirt, despite the inactive air-conditioning unit in the ceiling. Many times I want to say: “I’m aware that I’m sweating. Turn on the air-conditioner you morons.”

This translates over into Japanese people’s English in horrible ways. They overuse the word maybe just as much. When I’m listening and speaking to someone say tabun in Japanese, I see it for what it is. A word that doesn’t mean at all what it looks like. Like the word “literally” in English. Now, its meaning is figuratively.

When a Japanese person says maybe in English, I take it for what it means in English. Maybe.

“Maybe we should go to the store.”

“Maybe? Should we or not? Do we need milk?”

“Maybe X student is upset.”

“Are they? We should ask them.”

There’s the problem. In Japanese I see it as “Yes, we need to go to the store, but I really don’t want to offend you by insinuating we need something and you were negligent,” or “X student is actually upset about something.”

Even now, I catch myself saying maybe far more than I used to. I hear it so much. It’s ubiquitous in conversation with Japanese people. Japan is a land of uncertainty. It’s rare that people will commit to a thought, and sometimes they use the foreigner to commit their thoughts.

I have friends who have had teacher confide very private matters to them, like “I hate my husband.” It makes it difficult to be the third party. Sometimes they want to play maybes with you, but other times they view you as someone who isn’t privy to their system and divulge too much. Japanese people probably don’t like their own system either. They’ll complain about it to me – because I’m allowed to complain. I can question their system, but for them it is insubordinate. So they “tabun,” because “maybe [they] aren’t allowed to have snacks in the teacher’s room, because a student complained to their parent.” Maybe….. maybe….


Maybe you should follow me on Twitter?

Call me Tabun?


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