Reason why Japanese often use “maybe”

In conversation or some business scene you would see Japanese often use the word “maybe.” But in most case, Japanese use “maybe” instead of “probably” or “definitely.” In this context, actually there seldom exists uncertainty. Here I’m going to explain why Japanese like to use “maybe.”


Cultural background

Perhaps you know usually Japanese don’t express our insights, thought or idea directly. I think it comes from habit matured in long history of village socialism. In the environment, the hierarchy was comparatively flat and no upper or lower, but human relationship was physically dense, which has been developing euphemism expression method of conversation to keep distance mentally with each other.

Nowadays in Japanese language, the euphemism expression is grammatically systemized as honorific grammar. And, also in order to avoid direct expression, we use it on a daily basis. We Japanese don’t firmly assert things on expression even if it’s certainty. Even if we have concrete confidence, we tend to choose ambiguous expression for making mental distance. The word “maybe” is very suitable for us Japanese to describe such ambiguous expression. It’s just near how English people use “would” or “could.”

Actual probability doesn’t matter

So, Japanese are not conscious of specific percentage of probability when we use “maybe.” We use it only for blurring things off. In this context it should have been also suitable to use probably, likely or possibly. The only reason to be chosen is just the word is simple and easy to pronounce for Japanese.

You can often see “I think,” “I suppose”

In the same reason you will often see “I think” and “I suppose.” These expression also come from Japanese tendency.

After I realized this fact, I try not to use “maybe” in English consciously because it would be good way to fit into each local sense for smooth conversation, maybe.

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