Aizuchi (相槌 or あいづち) is the Japanese usage of expressions to show
interest in what a person is saying or to show understanding. Unlike
Western culture where it is considered rude to interrupt when someone is
speaking, in Japanese culture, this silence can be intrepreted as a lack
of interest, disagreement or a failure to understand what the speaker is
Aizuchi reassures the person speaking that the listener is paying
attention and involved with the discussion.
The most common aizuchi you are likely to hear or use include:
はい： “Hai” is one of the most common aizuchi words to hear.
You will hear it used a lot in formal situations, or with female
ええ： “Ee” is also very common, and can be used by ladies who are
familiar with each other, or in a familiar setting.
うん： “Un” can be used by girls and guys alike in casual
そう： “Sou”is a short, nice way to say, “I see.”
A lot of time,
you may hear, “そうそうそうそうそう” repeated quickly by the listener.
Women tend to do this more than men.
そうですか： “Sou desu ka” can be used in formal situations. The
slightly less formal そうですね (sou desu ne) is acceptable as well.
そうか： “Souka” and そうですよね (sou desu yo ne) are used in
casual situations to say, “I see,”“Ah, that’s it.”. Sou desu yo ne
is mainly used by females.
へえ：”Hee” (pronounced like “hey”) is a common way to show shock or
surprise. The meaning can vary depending on your tone: A simple nod and
soft “へえ” will loosely translate into something like, “Oh, really”
while a long and exaggerated “へえええ?!” will sound more like,
“No way!” or “Get out of here!”
本当に：”Hontou ni” is the ever popular ways to say, “really” or
even “honestly?”. Similarly, you can use 本当ですか (hontou desu ka)
as a polite way to ask, “Is that so?”. Maji(マジ) is a very casual
expression among friends and in Kansai, they tend to use honma (本真).
In a more serious conversation, people tend to use naruhodo (なるほど)
(I see, that’s right), and nodding your head is also a form of aizuchi.
Frequent use of aizuchi is polite and informs the speaker that the other
party is paying attention. Basically, it amounts to us saying `Oh yes?`,
`I see`, `I totally understand`, `Right` and so on.
If you disagree with the speaker, it is still wrong to voice that
disagreement while the other person is speaking. Instead, Japanese will
use facial expressions or body language to show disapproval. Japanese
will take a sharp breath through their teeth, and turn their face or
body away from the speaker.
One of the problems with aizuchi comes in the business world. Many
foreign businessmen met their Japanese counterparts and while making
their presentation, they hear the Japanese side saying Hai and sou desu
ne a lot. This leads them to the assumption that the Japanese side is
agreeing to their proposal and the deal is done, when all the time, the
Japanese were only using aizuchi!