The Art of Grunting

Good morning everyone,

Remember yesterday's forecast where they were calling for no rain on Tuesday and the warmer than usual weather to last a bit longer? Well, forget about that. They are now back to saying that we can expect some rain tomorrow night and temperatures will steadily fall all week till next weekend when highs will be in the mid teens.

Chances are, if you’ve ever had a conversation in Japanese – or even any other language – with a native Japanese person, you might have been slightly disconcerted by their constant interjections.

That’s because nodding along, saying things like “I see” (naruhodo), “Oh really?” (sou desu ka?) and just plain grunting is considered a polite way to indicate to a speaker that you’re following along in a conversation.

This technique is called “aizuchi” in Japanese and, sure, it seems common sense in any culture to occasionally give a nod of the head or look up from your iPhone to indicate you have at least a passing interest in what’s being said, but the Japanese really turn it into an art form.

Here's YouTuber and Japan resident Micaela give you a sample of what it sounds and feels like to non-Japanese.

Micaela is generally absolutely right in that aizuchi can seem a little annoying to foreigners who aren’t used to it, but in reality, it isn’t, strictly speaking, always used to show a listener you’re following along. Like in other cultures, depending on tone and body language, aizuchi can also be used to indicate you want the speaker to get to the point or just wrap it up with the whole talking thing.

So, when a Japanese person says, “aa, sou?” , he/she could be indicating that they’re interested in what you’re saying, but it could also be a polite way of telling you, “Hey, I’m sure whatever you’re saying is very interesting, but right now I’m a little more interested in watching the Carp game, so could you come back later?” Whether you're speaking Japanese or English, the tone is what makes the difference. A rising tone indicates interest and a monotone response shows that you aren't that interested.

Micaela’s point about conversations in Japanese tending to revolve around the listener’s obsession with your foreignness is also something that any foreigner who's lived here for a while can probably identify with. Just imagine if a foreigner’s idea of aizuchi was to interrupt a conversation with a Japanese person by shouting, “WOW! You can eat hamburgers? That is SOOO impressive!”

And, because I love you, here are a few rough translations for you so you can try to stop using aizuchi when you're speaking English. Say them with an upward intonation to indicate interest, or in a flat monotone if you just want the speaker to shut up:

“eeeeeeeeh!” (“Whaaaat?”/”No way!”)

“Sou nan da!” (“Oh, that’s right!”/”Right, I get it!”)

“Naruhodo ne” (“Ah, so that’s how it is.”/”Right, I see.”)

“nnnnnnnn” (I'm listening.")

“fuuuuuuun” (“That's so interesting/cool/funny!”)

“Un un un!” (“Right, right right!”)

Have a great day!

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